Fiction Reviews

Beneath the World, a Sea

(2019) Chris Beckett, Corvus, £17.99, hrdbk, 279pp, ISBN 978-1-786-49155-8


This is much more of a thinking novel than an adventure; not a lot happens really but it is none-the-less an interesting journey that is worth reading.

Set in 1990, Police Inspector Ben Ronson is sent to the Submundo Delta, somewhere in South America, to advise on a problem concerning the routine killings of an indigenous creature.  The only way to get there is by boat down the river Lethe, whilst beyond the Delta are the impassable Valente Falls.  In the heart of the Delta is what appears to be a large island several miles long and across and covered in forest; so densely packed are the trees that it seems like solid ground beneath them though in fact the forest grows down to the river bed and water flows beneath it.  The forest spans the area between the remnants of a cluster of small, extinct volcanoes.  On one edge is the small town of Amizad, built on the only bit of real land.

The Delta is surrounded by the Zona de Olvido (the Zone of Forgetfulness). The boundaries of the Zone move a little and there is nothing obvious about it, no feeling of entering or leaving it, other that on leaving one instantly, totally, and forever, forgets everything that happened whilst within it.  About midway through the Zone is the town on Nus, a useful stopping and trading post.  Those that live there dare not leave else they will forget everything (even language if they were born there), those passing briefly through are left wondering what they did while in the Zone, and the captains and crews of the boats which regularly travel up and down the river write everything down so as to know, for example, what trading they did.

Arriving at the Delta and settling in to his hotel in Amizad, Ben has already noticed that the forest is unlike any other; the tress and plants, even the animals, are different to anything he has ever seen before.  The local people, the Mundino, mostly live in villages within the forest whilst Ďoutsidersí live in the town, as far from the forest as one can get (though that is only a few hundred yards).  The problem he has come to deal with is that the duendes Ė somewhat human-looking creatures that dwell mostly in the water but often venture into the forest Ė are hated by the Mundino and killed on sight.  Due to campaigning by a local research group based in the town, the UN has declared the duendes to be Ďpersonsí and so it is Benís job to investigate the killings and find a way of stopping them.  Sounds simple, he thought.

The problem is that the forest gets to you - it gets to everyone in one way or another.  Some, like Ben, are quickly and greatly affected, for others it is a more gentle experience, but nobody is untouched.  Although mostly following Ben, we also learn through individual chapters something of others visiting or living in the Delta.  Hyacinth is an anthropologist making her seventh visit; she knows to acclimatise to the feeling of the forest and importantly when it is time to leave and return to the normal world.  Justine has lived there for about fifteen years and runs a pottery and studio/shop; she hates the forest but cannot bring herself to leave.  Jael is a brilliant and very rich scientist who has dropped out of normal science to study what makes the forest tick, so to say. Jaelís partner Rico is a drug-addled hippy; with an empty mind he is more in tune with the forest than anyone and it is through him that Jael makes her studies. Arriving on the next boat after Benís is Tim Dolby, coincidentally Jaelís ex-husband.  Tim is a representative of the oil industry and he is convinced that the forest must contain many plants which will prove to be of great economic value.

As Benís visit continues, the forest gets to him more and more.  He too develops a hatred of the duendes, who seem to represent all that is wrong with the forest, and he finds himself siding with the locals and wanting to kill the creatures himself.  How will he square this with his duty to protect them?  Does he even want to protect them?  What can he do to stop himself falling to pieces?

The book gently introduces us to the forest and the characters.  The elements of the story nicely weave back and forth along the timeline as we look into the backgrounds of the characters, their histories, personalities, drives, and problems.  Slowly the forest forces people to look at themselves and live with who they are, if they can.I found the story absorbing and relentless as I followed Ben as he descended into his own personal nightmare.  The stories of the other characters as they wrestled with their own problems added to the sombre feeling that permeated the story.  And the forest?  It just wants to be left alone.  No-one goes to the Delta without being affected - not even the reader.  I enjoyed it. This is a story that will stick with me.

Peter Tyers


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