The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison (20B#1)

Below is my review of my first read from my TBR for #20booksofsummer23 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. I look forward to this reading challenge every summer now, as it really does encourage me to get some books out of my TBR where they languish for far too long generally.

I’m pretty sure when I was in my mega-SF phase in my late teens and early twenties that I read some M John Harrison – probably one of his Viriconium novels, but sadly I can’t remember them. Kaggsy is a huge Harrison fan, and when she reviewed The Sunken Land… for Shiny, I acquired a copy. This novel went on to win the 2020 Goldsmith’s Prize, awarded annually to a piece of fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.”

If I had to categorise The Sunken Land … , I think the closest tag would be ‘New Weird’ – not SF or fantasy, nor spec fiction as such, but having an unsettling quality, a fantastic edge to it, with maybe a soupçon of something alien in the mix. US author, Jeff Vandermeer, is perhaps the leading author of New Weird, but his novels such as the Southern Reach Trilogy do tend to have more SF in the blend.

Once it gets going, The Sunken Land… is certainly unsettling, but first we meet the two protagonists, Shaw and Victoria on the first page, beginning:

During his fifties Shaw went through a rough patch. That was how he put it to himself. His adult life had been, until then, perfectly normal. He had been determined on normality. Perhaps that had been the problem. Anyway, his life lost shape and five years were expended on nothing very much. They slid into themselves like the parts of a trick box and wouldn’t open again. […]

A woman he met – one of several who instinctively discarded him during that period – came closest to defining what had happened to him. Her name was Victoria, and on greeting someone new her habit was to announce that she worked in a morgue. ‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she would say vaguely, however you responded to that. ‘but then I’m someone who saw her first corpse when she was fourteen.’

And they sort of begin a relationship, but at arms length.

‘when, one night at the Spurstowe Arms, Shaw tried to put things on a more permanent basis, she shivered. ‘You seem like a decent man,’ she said, holding his hand briefly across a table littered with empty glasses and the remains of potato ravioli with wild mushrooms, ‘but you’ve forgotten what everything’s about.’ […] ‘To be honest, I’ve never met anyone in such a manic.’ At the time this assessment seemed less hurtful than meaningless. Later he would have more than one chance to appreciate the clarity of it. Meanwhile life drew itself closed as suddenly as cheap curtains and they saw less of each other.

Despite not in the end becoming a couple, and we’re only up to page 5 of the novel yet, Shaw and Victoria’s relationship will endure, transforming into a deep friendship told through emails and letters rather than in person, sometimes more one-sided for periods, in that Victoria corresponds more frequently, but Shaw still thinks a lot of her – especially when he sees the metal fish ornament she had given him. (Victoria has an obsession with people who look like fishes!).

At this stage, Shaw is living in a bedsit in south-west London. He goes for long walks to get out. He really needs a job, and it is on one of his walks when he meets Tim, who is prospecting in an old graveyard by the river. Tim needs a helper for his business, which he runs from a houseboat, and Shaw starts work the next Monday.

Tim’s business is never really defined as such. Sometimes he needs Shaw to accompany him with boxes of (presumably dodgy) goods on trips to nondescript warehouses and offices in ‘light-engineering towns’ in the Midlands; Shaw will go on his own later. Minding the office on the boat, he selling copies of an obviously self-published book, and does light admin. He’s happy enough, except when he has to pee – there is no evident toilet on the houseboat, only a padlocked second area – he has to use the thick undergrowth!

Tim is a conspiracy theorist, a contributor to a website full of such speculation about aliens and things not being what they seem, and as we wonder whether he’ll try to involve Shaw, things do begin to take a weirder turn. Tim asks Shaw to start attending weekly seances with Mrs Swann, a medium, and to report back to him – which Shaw dutifully does – all very odd.

Meanwhile, Victoria has moved from London to a village in Shropshire on the river Severn, having inherited her mother’s house and all its contents and problems, which she is doing up with the help of many local tradesmen. Not knowing anyone there, she strikes up a friendship with Pearl, who owns a local cafe. She had been beginning to feel at home, but discovering a village obsession with Charles Kingsley’s book The Water Babies – which was written in part as a satire on Darwinism – she can’t settle.

With the fish on the cover, Victoria’s gift to Shaw, Shaw sometimes seeing green flashes of light moving through puddles and the river, The Water Babies and the strong presence of the rivers Thames and Severn in this novel, there is definitely something fishy going on! It’s as if the rivers are living entities (reminding me of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London) and breeding their own creatures, yet Harrison never makes this explicit, just creating this air of slight unease.

It’s brilliantly done. Harrison’s language is wonderfully descriptive, simple and direct when needed, but overall there is a subtlety to it that is totally involving and beguiling; at 254 pages, the length is perfect too. I am so glad to have re-discovered M John Harrison, and look forward to reading more by him in the future. The Sunken Land… is a great and accessible introduction to the author’s work. Highly recommended.

Source: Own copy. Gollancz hardback, 2020, 254 pages.

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6 thoughts on “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison (20B#1)

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Sounds like an interesting one although too weird for me probably. I expect Matthew has read him. Well done for getting started on your 20Books, feels good to have one finished and reviewed, doesn’t it!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This novel is weird-lite – so you might take to it. I’m actually reading my third of my 20 Books, so feeling good about the challenge!

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I knew I had to get to M John Harrison eventually but with Karen’s and your laudatory posts, plus a mention of The Water-Babies (what! no hyphen?!) I think I’m finally sold on ordering a copy of this!

      • Calmgrove says:

        The huphen appears in the original publication (and being pedantic I tend to include it in any references) but most modern editions don’t bother, and that’s usually also the case whenever it gets a mention these days.

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