The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again by M. John Harrison (Book Review)
“If all change is sea change, he thought on the train back to Mortlake, then he could describe his own crisis – whatever it had been – as distributed rather than catastrophic. Sea change precludes the single cause, is neither convulsive nor properly conclusive: perhaps, like anyone five fathoms down into their life, he had simply experienced a series of adjustments, of overgrowths and dissolvings – processes so slow they might still be going on, so that the things happening to him now were not so much an aftermath as the expanding edge of the disaster itself, lapping at recently unrecognisable coasts.”
The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again (2020) is M. John Harrison’s first novel since Empty Space in 2012, the final volume of the multiple-award-winning Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy redefined the limits of what space opera could do, in much the same way that Harrison’s earlier Viriconium books paved the way for a new kind of Fantasy writing. On top of that, Harrison is one of my favourite authors, so my expectations going in were high. With The Sunken Land Begins To Rise, Harrison once again delivers a powerful and confounding novel that challenges the limits of the genre. It is a wonderful novel, full of haunting imagery and with a constant undercurrent of unease and strangeness, and almost impossible to categorise. Harrison’s prose is luminous and evocative, his command of landscape and mood vivid and memorable, his characters convincingly human. The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again shows us a recognisably mundane world in which something rich and strange and ultimately frightening is happening just out of the corner of the reader’s eyes.
The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again follows Shaw, who has a breakdown in his fifties but is trying to get his life back together. He moves into a single room in Wharf Terrace in London, has an affair with Victoria, who saw her first corpse at age fourteen, regularly visits his resentful mother in a dementia care centre, and begins working for Tim Swann, an eccentric man with an office on a decaying London barge. Meanwhile Victoria has moved up to a small town in Shropshire to renovate her dead mother’s house and try to make a new life for herself outside of London. As Shaw and Victoria try to make sense of the shape of their lives, they find themselves on the edges of increasingly sinister mysteries. Is there a dark truth at the heart of the bizarre conspiracy theories Tim peddles on his blog The Water House and his book, Journeys of Our Genes? What is the purpose of the clandestine deliveries he sends Shaw across the country for, and the seances conducted by his sister Annie? Why is everyone in Victoria’s new town obsessed with Charles Kingsley’s Victorian children’s tale The Water Babies?
Any long-time reader of Harrison’s fiction could hazard a guess that these questions and more will not be answered by The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, because that’s not how Harrison’s fiction works. Harrison is interested in the way ambiguities, uncertainties and the uncanny open up vistas to the imagination, rather than providing pat answers that close them down. Indeed, there is no closure for Shaw and Victoria, as they find themselves drawn into the orbit of something they are incapable of understanding. Neither Shaw nor Victoria ever receive enough information to be able to put together a coherent picture of what’s going on – their relationship is characterised by their inability to communicate with each other, perhaps because of the aspects of their selves that they refuse to acknowledge. The only choice left to them is whether they embrace the unknown that is opening up before them or walk away from it. The attentive reader, however, may piece together an impression of what might be going on in the sidelines of the narrative. Tim’s conspiracy theories and the strangeness witnessed by the two main characters imply a people living parallel to us or hidden among us aquatic in nature. They almost pass as human, find hidden resonances in Kingsley’s water babies trying to communicate with land babies, and are preparing for a drowned world to re-emerge from the depths, or for the waters to rise and claim the English Midlands.
As in much of Harrison’s fiction, the magical and uncanny is something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, something rarely seen but once experienced so intrinsically different from consensus reality that it becomes impossible to simply dismiss. Echoing the themes of the Viriconium books, the novel questions our desire to disappear into a magical world. Escapism does not necessarily interrogate what it is escaping from, or to. I wouldn’t categorise The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again as a portal fantasy, but I do feel that it is intentionally playing with and engaging with this idea. The novel is mostly set in an all too familiar Britain, wracked by austerity and Brexit. Harrison shows us the futility of our modern existence, shops and businesses closing down unable to support themselves, the working class physically shaped by the rigours of their labour, the provinces and suburbs abandoned and collapsing. Shaw’s job involves deliveries of useless goods, and the nebulously defined tech work of helping Tim run his website, none of which gives him anything beyond a meagre wage. His mother is shut up in an understaffed care home, ignored by the rest of her children and her many ex-husbands as she slowly dies from dementia. Victoria, renovating her mother’s house, comes to understand that she never really knew her mother at all, and struggles to make any meaningful connections with her new neighbours. Both characters are alienated from themselves and from society at large. Harrison shows how common this is in our world. The mysterious cult of fish people are understandably trying to escape, but what are they escaping to? A Victorian children’s fantasy. At the end of the day, is this any different from the fantasies of Brexit? Harrison portrays a Britain unable to face the harsh reality of late period capitalism, hiding from reality in an outdated fantasy and refusing to engage with others.
The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is a work of fiction that questions our relationship to fantasy and escapism, whilst acknowledging the difficulties of engaging with reality. It is beautifully written, utterly compelling, and like much of Harrison’s works, there are scenes of such sublime strangeness that they linger in the mind long after the novel is over. As such it is another triumph from one of our finest writers, and essential reading for 2020.