Fiction Reviews

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

(2020) M. John Harrison, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 254pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09635-6


Harrison is back writing novels, it’s almost ten years since Empty Space (2012) appeared, the last of his 'Kefahuchi Tract' series, and boy has he made a splash (boom, boom) with this one. As I was reading The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, it was announced that M. John Harrison had won The Goldsmith Prize with this novel, beating off the other five shortlisted writers and pocketing the £10,000 prize; although why do I get that impression that the money probably won’t mean that much to him, but the prize, which is for fiction “that opens up new possibilities in the novel form”, might, given that it acknowledges what he is trying to do here. In the process of winning that prize, the novel was described as “fiction that breaks the mould”, and “a literary masterpiece that will continue to be read in 100 years time, if the planet survives that long”, as well as “a brilliant realist fantasy about love in middle-age and the dissolution of the post-war settlement”. Harrison himself has called it as not being “science fiction or folk horror or psychogeography, but it contains parodic elements of all three, and more”.

It’s no surprise that the term psychogeography has been mentioned in relation to Sunken Land as it refers to a meeting place between psychology and geography and the psychological effects of place on a person, notably when they allow themselves to become lost in the city by allowing themselves to “drift”. In The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Harrison’s hero “Shaw” has lost himself following a breakdown and has moved to a bedsit beside the river and is struggling to look after himself, let alone his demented mother and keep in touch with his lover, Victoria who has moved away to stay in her dead mother’s house. Despite the miles that separate them, live is unsettling for both of them. Shaw hears voices and is seeing unsettling things, Victoria is encountering them. Times have changed, Brexit has arrived, and businesses have not survived. Change is in the air, but so is the past, particularly the Victorian novel The Water Babies written by Charles Kingsley, in fact the title of Harrison’s novel is taken from a lecture that Kingsley made. The Water Babies also features in Harrison’s book as copies of the novel are foisted on the main characters and can be seen popping up (or floating by) from time to time. The past is intruding on the future, and society is changing, with the boundaries between the real and unreal starting to fade, where people can disappear, where appearances are not to be trusted, like the news, possibly depending on your viewpoint, and a new form of life is more than a rumour.

Gently unfolding over 4 parts and 19 chapters, and filled with unique, quirky prose that Harrison employs to describe things which are either very poetic or jarring, like a slap to the face. Lazy, no, but it is perhaps languid, drifting, taking you gently downstream on a current that pulls the reader along on a journey where they might get lost, where there might be no final destination, where you read the last sentence and close the cover and wonder what you have just read. It is a triumph, it is brilliant, unlike any other book you have ever read in 2020, with Harrison blurring boundaries and genres, but I suspect it will be a bit of a Marmite book for some, something they will take to, and love, instinctively, or something they might dislike because it is so different, particularly for fans of Harrison’s award-winning science fiction works.  Why did Sunken Land win a prize?  It’s not rocket science, it was simply because it was the best. Recommended.

Ian Hunter

See also Mark's take on The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again.


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