Review by Karen Langley
M. John Harrison has been described as one of the UK’s best-kept secrets, a hidden jewel in the literary crown of this country. Considered by many a figurehead of British genre writing, his stories first began appearing in sci-fi collections in the 1960s, and he went on to produce some stunning novels featuring the fictional world of Viriconium. As well as many other sci-fi works (including the highly regarded Kefahuchi Tract trilogy), he’s written mainstream novels and numerous quite brilliant short stories. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is his first new novel for seven years and has been highly anticipated; and the cover comes with plaudits for the author from such luminaries as Robert Macfarlane and China Miéville.
Sunken tells the story of Shaw and Victoria: the former is middle-aged and recovering from some kind of breakdown, the latter is a doctor’s daughter who claims to have seen her first corpse when she was fourteen. Their relationship is fractured and on-off, with very little real connection, but it seems to be all they have. In a fragmented, post-Brexit and very recognisable landscape, Shaw picks up a kind of job from a man called Tim, which (when he isn’t sitting in a decaying barge-cum-office on the Thames) involves racing off all over the country and trying to sell what are probably dodgy goods in very familiar, declining high streets. However, some of the things Tim asks him to do are odd, including attending seances and reporting back on a trial which seems insignificant except when it comes to one man’s evidence:
All that seemed certain was this: the accused believed that one evening shortly after his seventieth birthday he had looked into a toilet bowl in the Black Horse on Camp Lane and realised that there was ‘something alive in the water’.
Tim also appears to be involved in some kind of unspecified conspiracy theory, contributing to a website and often being found poking around the water’s edge after dark…
Meanwhile, Victoria has decamped to a town in Shropshire after her mother’s death, to deal with the deceased’s house and belongings. Initially she falls in the love with the place, feeling she’s finally found what she wants in the form of a home and a garden. She makes friends with a local waitress, Pearl; decorates the house and has umpteen men in to do renovations; and tries to settle in. However, there is strangeness here too, with the nearby River Severn dominating the landscape, strange rumours, local obsessions with the Victorian novel The Water Babies, and a vagueness about what really happened to Victoria’s mother. Her friendship with Pearl is not without difficulties either… Both Shaw and Victoria will find that things only get stranger as they try to negotiate an uncertain world.
Sunken is a wonderful and profoundly unsettling read. Harrison’s genius lies in taking what appears at first sight to be the quotidian and twisting it subtly into something sinister and quite disturbing. For much of the narrative, Shaw seems a man sleepwalking through life, at one point stating ‘I’m living without explanations, if you can understand that.’ In his detached state, he can’t even get Victoria’s surname right, which adds to the feeling of ambiguity running through the narrative. Neither protagonist seems capable of controlling the forces moving their lives; and their personal crises and fractured states of mind seem to reflect the mess of the modern world.
The writing is, of course, superb; Harrison is a master of his craft. He’s an author who knows when to leave things unsaid or undefined (as they’re often more disturbing because of not being spelled out). This adds to the sense of unease, and the narrative is often as nebulous and fluid as water itself. There are recurring liquid metaphors, reminding the reader that water is the key to the book and we humans are, of course, mainly composed of it. And there is significance in the constant presence of the Severn and the Thames, with the existence of both characters playing out beside a major river.
There are regular references to classical paintings featuring strange water scenes or landscapes – as Shaw comments: “Sea change, taking place in damp air, foul weather, at a distance, at night. Everything liquidised. Where it wasn’t the moon shining on water, everything looked like the moon shining on water…” Both Shaw and Victoria share parental concerns: his mother is descending into dementia and her tenuous grip on reality matches Shaw’s confused state. He attempts to reconnect with his mother and his complex family past through her collection of photographs but they seem to blur things even more; and both of them are distracted by those classic artworks with the strange seascapes. As for Victoria’s mother’s death, as the narrative goes on it becomes less and less clear what actually happened near the Severn. A sea change is defined as a profound or notable transformation, which may well be relevant.
Both Shaw’s and Victoria’s experiences throw up hints, suggestions that there might be something under humanity’s noses which may not have been noticed. There is a continual sense of the undercurrent (watery or not) of strangeness running through life; just what is the significance of The Water Babies? And will there really be a conclusion? As one section of the book builds to its climax an almost biblical rain descends on Victoria and her small town and the landscape becomes almost entirely water…
…the groundwater rose and fell. It dripped and seeped. It percolated through the fractured beds beneath the coppices – through the demented, unpredictable, immeasurably fortunate geology, fuel for the industrial light and magic that had once changed the world: the iron money, the engine money, the steam and tontine money, the raw underground money hidden in unconformable strata, secret seams and voids, in jumbled shales, fireclays, tar, coal measures and thinly bedded limestone – to exit as seeps and springs above the heritage museums and leisure trails and decommissioned railways; while associated subsidence gnawed quietly away at the superficial architecture of the Gorge, peeling the narrow lanes slowly off its wooded slopes. The Gorge channelled the river, yet was in itself only a sponge, storing vast acquifers, drop by drop, in the decaying matrix of its own history. In town, meanwhile, the newer pavements displayed a tendency to shift and ripple; while at 92 High Street, the three-room basement, with its brick barrel vaulting and late-nineteenth-century kitchen range, began to weep and smell.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a stunning and outstanding book, which is most definitely well worth the wait! The writing is as good as Harrison has ever produced, the atmosphere so brilliantly captured, and it’s a complex and multi-layered read – the sort of book you want to go back and read again to pick up elements you might have missed. The thing to remember about an M. John Harrison book is that nothing is ever what is seems, and everything is always happening just out of sight of the characters (and reader!); that sense of catching a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye and not being quite sure what you saw. There’s always something slightly off-kilter about his narrative which unsettles the reader. Sunken is as brilliant and uncategorizable as all of Harrison’s works, defying classification; this excellent book may be the most unsettling piece of fiction you read this year…
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is irresistibly attracted to water.
M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz, 2020). 978-0575096356, 254pp, hardback.
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