M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020) Review

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. What image does that title generate? Something about the past, something that lay hidden, that you thought was gone perhaps, but is coming back. This does not only refer to the land, to the geography. It also refers to the characters that Harrison puts into this novel. It refers to their lives and how they experience their lives. Indeed, Harrison is fond of the idea of psychogeography, the study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind or on behaviour, and in this novel there is a strong link between the two. So, we have Shaw and Victoria, two middle-aged Brits who are sort of in stasis in their lives. The way Harrison describes their lives is with an anxious feeling of stagnation or even regression, and that anxiety is communicated through what Harrison chooses to describe to us about their lives. Shaw and Victoria are only half conscious about their situation. They are more avoidant than anxious.

Shaws ageing mother has a clearer impression of what’s going on in her more lucid moments: “The days pass by so quickly,” she keeps repeating in her old frail voice. “Everything that would have happened in my twenties, was stretched out over a lifetime.” “Don’t wait for your life to start.” Shaw doesn’t want to hear it. He hates her moments of clarity. Victoria saw her first dead body at the age of fourteen and hasn’t been sane since. She works at a morgue, and she’s always nervous and projects that onto the people around her: “You don’t have time for me now, do you? I can tell by your voice.” But she’s good with dead people, because they don’t call back. Shaw and Victoria feel real; they feel photorealistic. Shaw moves back to a student flat, regressing, and Victoria moves out to hide in the countryside, and both feel washed up regardless of the direction they move in.

So far about the people, but what about the land? Here’s where we can call this novel speculative fiction, or new weird or magical realism. From the start there’s imagery everywhere of fish and tide marks. Corner walls of a castle are described as the unfinished bow of a ship, waiting for a dramatic rise in sea level. Green tadpoles appear in public toilets, which grow into green human foetuses. People with a green sheen on them, disappearing into the water. A conspiracy website with grey videos of people emerging from the water at high tides. Hints of historical baggage in our DNA, of old fish-like species of humans.

While all that is going on in the background of the novel, there is a pervasive sense of a failure of human connection between all the characters. Shaw and Victoria hook up but never really listen to each other. Victoria sends Shaw endless emails about her life but never seems to expect an answer. Shaw has conversations with his dementing mother who never really knows who he is. People say strange non-sequiturs, or do things like dig a hole in the soil with their bare hands but don’t explain why, leaving it all a mystery what they were on about. All this failure of communication has to do with self-obsession, or as Shaw says at one point: “they lose the ability to contribute to any myth but their own.” I think the book is making a broader point about self-obsession in general, but with Shaw and Victoria it is like a Shaun of the Dead situation where they see all the strangeness going on but it hardly registers with them. And as a result, we the readers don’t really understand what is happening either.

The story develops very slowly. Sometimes I felt that it was drowning in a sea of details that formed kaleidoscopes of metaphors, but what was it all working towards? The chapters in which Victoria settles into her new home in the countryside and gets to know the locals are full of impressions, strange interactions with those locals, short travels in the neighbourhood, musings on local geography, and I often wondered about the point of it all. Harrison’s individual chapters resolve themselves much in the way that his short stories do: with final paragraphs that suddenly resolve the tension or mystery in an unsettling way. Then the weird things break through the surface of normality, for which the chapters have been laying down foundations and have been building towards. 

It is in the concept of psychogeography that the people and the land are connected into some Victorian fantasy of metamorphosis. The lack of human connection, mental regression and climate change all combine into a single thing. Harrison refers to the real 1863 book The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley. A morbid fairy tale about a boy falling into the river and transforming into a water baby as a morality tale. Harrison would never be so vulgar as to put a clear moral message in his stories, but it is something like that. It all adds up to a mood piece that involves both the people and the geography; a sort of state of the nation, of the mentalities of the people, of the driftwood of earlier waves of economic growth, and the land itself reacting to it, or is it the other way around? There are no clear answers.

Most of this review has been me trying to explain the book to myself. I liked reading it, I loved the beautiful poetic language, but it also left me a bit perplexed. I didn’t really understood the emotional journeys of the characters, and I didn’t understood why they ended up where they ended up. I closed it with a giant question mark over my head, and little emotional satisfaction, although the more I think about it, the more theories I can formulate for myself.

If you pay enough attention, many linkages can be made between chapters, between people and locations and which people are involved with what activities. Pay attention at every reference to water and what it might mean, metaphorically. But it isn’t set up as a puzzle book, so there are no clear answers. Harrison plays around with the form of it, with conspiracy thought, with the formalities of horror writing and SF writing, but in the end only uses their suggestive effects and then holds back. A new land is rising, beyond our awareness but one we might have triggered ourselves, and it will take us with it. And for some this is a boon and for others it is not. That’s the main point, I think.

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6 Responses to M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020) Review

  1. bormgans says:

    Great review. Really a puzzling book. I think your question mark review on Goodreads must have been the best short review I’ve ever read – no joke. I think this kind of book would really benefit a reread.

    Did you read my review recently? At the end, I added some fragments from interviews with Harrison I came across when researching for a review of an another of his books, and they really open up the book:


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul Connelly says:

    Is psychogeography mainly (or even strictly) a British subgenre? The other authors I associate with this all seem to be Brits: Iain Sinclair, Alan Garner, Peter Ackroyd…?

    Liked by 1 person

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