Review: The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again by M. John Harrison

As befits its title, this watery novel centres on two characters who are drowning, dissolving, all at sea. If you played a drinking game of all the ways that water is mentioned, you would not just be well and truly soaked, you would be dead. I half expected the book to start leaking, for dampness to seep out of the spine and across the page.

Alex Shaw, in his fifties, has reached a point of crisis in his life. He is ungainfully employed in the digital and gig economy, his mother is in care for dementia, and he’s just moved to a bedsit in south west London. He spends his hours walking the tow paths and graveyards along the Thames and drinking in the riverside pubs. He meets a woman, the anxious Victoria, just as lost as Shaw. They have a fling, and then she moves to the country, into her mother’s old house (the damage inflicted by unloving mothers is a common theme) “on the exact line between Shropshire and nowhere”. At the bottom of the local gorge is the Severn, a river that once flowed north towards the Irish Sea before being reversed south by the advance of the ice across Britain during the ice ages. The novel is similarly one of reversals and inversions.

Both become entangled with strange, perhaps amphibious people, who are obsessed with Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies (also quoted in the epigraph), a fable for people “desperate to be a fish or a baby or both, the Victorian fantasies of regression and transition told as morality”. Harrison’s novel offers similar fantasies. Middle-aged, single, priced out of adequate housing, Shaw and Victoria are the children of the modern world, their lives rendered meaningless by the isolation and inhumanity of global capitalism turbocharged by the internet. Although it is difficult to make out through the density of Harrison’s writing, it is rewarding and moving to follow their respective journeys to something like peace.

It’s a fascinating book. Harrison writes like a hoarder, collecting art, history and the proper nouns of brands and forging them into a picture of the modern world. Shropshire is a fruitful setting, its bedrock ridden with the coal and iron mines that birthed the Industrial Revolution, that one-way door to climate and ecological ruin (briefly the novel acknowledges the “now lost” coral reefs) that we should be so desperately trying to return through. It is “an intersection of possibilities, unconformable layers of time, myths from a geography long forgotten or not yet invented”.

At our end of modernity, Shaw and Victoria find themselves living a conspiracy. Shaw finds employment with the mysterious Tim Swann, who sends him on seemingly pointless errands and to a medium. Victoria is haunted by a man calling for his dog along the banks of the Severn. Both witness strange gatherings and rituals. There’s a blog called The Water House; a self-published book about a subspecies of human. Harrison perfectly captures the madness of the search for meaning in our mad times, when “everything is either a truth or a mystery”. It’s that kind of thinking that is partly responsible for a global uptick in populism, but it also a defining feature of our unstable times, when every temperature record, every iceberg, every bird out of place has become an augury of things going awry. The Sunken Land superbly captures how that instability affects the mind: I felt as paranoid, gaslit and discombobulated as Shaw and Victoria by the events happening around them.

Like Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, The Sunken Land is ultimately borne out of the tumult of Brexit. The amphibious humans are clearly allegorical, working “their way up from the river at night, looking for mischief … anything unanchored is at risk”. But allegorical for what? At times they seem to be the migrants that so played on the fears of Leave voters; at others the hordes outside the Remain-voting cities, disenchanted with the globalised elite. As with everything in this novel, their meaning refracts depending on where you are standing.

This is very dense, but not particularly difficult writing, which a very tricky thing to pull off. It is uncanny to a fault. There are also lovely descriptive passages, as when Shaw walks the towpath one crisp morning:

Strong sunshine scoured the house fronts along the river curve, transforming gable ends into blocks and triangles of light, drawing attention to an aluminium cowl here, a sagging phone cable there, making a point with the yellow registration plate of a passing Audi. Wind shook the stationary water drops on everything. Landward, the crows were working out happily above St Mary Magdalen, loosening up in twos and threes, doing air-pocket work, breathing into their stalls and sideslips, wingsuiting around Richard Burton’s tented mausoleum.

Like many an ambitious novel, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the reading, but I continue to mull over its puzzles long after.

Gay rating: not gay

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