A work of hauntings of the prehuman making their presence felt
This intriguing and, one cannot help thinking, intentionally puzzling novel by the acclaimed writer M. John Harrison, justifies China Mieville's praise of the author as someone who 'writes fantasy and sf, though of a form, scale and brilliance that shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction.'
Only two – three at a pinch – characters drive the story. There is Shaw who is recovering from some kind of breakdown, though whether his social isolation is a cause or a consequence of this remains unclear. He has a room in a house where most other tenants share a dispiriting sameness: the men wear 'irreproachable Paul Smith suits and Ted Baker shirts from Covent Garden' and the women work in marketing and go jogging 'gait-perfect, Pilates-balanced'.
Victoria, the other main character, is in an off-on relationship with him and, dissatisfied and unfulfilled, is also alienated but in her own way. She leaves London for a small provincial town and sets about renovating her dead mother's house and making new acquaintances.
Shaw's mother is afflicted with dementia and his regular visits to her consist of Pinteresque conversations that mordantly mirror the malaise characterising social life for those outside the nursing home where she resides. The metaphysics are all wrong everywhere.
Victoria and Shaw have an awareness of incompleteness, a feeling that something is out of joint, and the reader comes to share their disquiet and their inability to pin down the cause of this unrest. Something on the edge of rational explanation is going on beneath the surface of everyday life and, as the book's title suggests, it is not going away.
Shaw's mindfulness tells him that 'a crisis might not even be your own. Perhaps no one should be able to claim a crisis as personal. If you aren't expected to own it, a crisis can be a barely noticeable thing.'
This sense of withoutness and dissolution grows palpably as the characters go about their business. It becomes associated with a drift towards water, the substance that the earliest pre-Socratic philosophers saw as the primary substance of the world, the originary matter out of which everything emerges.
Harrison fleshes out this idea, not through swashbuckling events but in the beauty and precision of his psychogeographic prose. 'Sea change', says the third-person narrator in the novel, 'precludes the single cause, is neither convulsive nor properly conclusive: perhaps, like five fathoms down into their life, he [Shaw] had simply experienced a series of adjustments, of overgrowths and dissolvings…not so much an aftermath as the expanding edge of the disaster itself, lapping at recently unrecognisable coasts.'
Water as the cosmological foundation is a recurring and structuring motif in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It overrides the myth-poetic tendency that would give primacy to (Mother) Earth as the primordial heart of everything. In this way, Harrison's novel, where fantasy meets social realism, is not a work of posthuman sci-fi – a world of AI, cyborgs and digitalization – but of hauntings of the prehuman making their presence felt.
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, by M. John Harrison, is published by Gollancz
Review by Sean Sheehan
9.4/10 from 1 reviews
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