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9 January 2021

#Review - The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison

Design by Micaela Alcaino
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again
M John Harrison
Gollancz, 25 June 2020
Available as: HB, 254pp, e, audio
Source: HB bought from Wallingford Bookshop
ISBN: 9780575096356

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is another 2020 book that I put aside till less hectic times and eventually read over Christmas. It was a glorious read for me, but I have to say I find my reviewing skills rather lacking in describing exactly why.

The book follows two protagonists. Shaw is a middle aged man living in West London ('south and west of Hammersmith Bridge in a quiet suburban badlands between East Sheen and the Thames, bounded by Little Chelsea on one side and Sheen Lane on the other') who is just coming out of a 'rough patch' which he doesn't remember well. he frequently visits his mother in a care home (oh, pre Covid writing!). Victoria, the daughter of a doctor who claims to have seen her first corpse at 13, now lives in a Midlands town on the river Severn. At the start of the book they are, or have recently been, together, and throughout they email, telephone and occasionally meet - indeed, parts of the story are told in these emails, although it may be they are never actually sent.

So Victoria and Shaw are apart, facing ostensibly different circumstances but there are parallels in their lives which become more obvious as time goes on (although I would still be hard put to explain exactly what is happening to them). These range from locations (the descriptions of Shaw's lodgings and the building which Victoria visits to find Pearl) to passing references (tourist trap villages which claimed to have hosted a parliament in the 14th century) to relationships with other characters - each is engaged with a more-knowing set, focussed, in different ways, on local waters and pools (the rivers of West London for Shaw, the Severn and field-pools for Victoria). 

In a sense, each is I think investigating the same mystery, and if they had sat down together at any point and shared all of what they knew, both might have made more progress. (As they might if they had read the copies of Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies that keep being pressed on them - a book I remember trying to read as a child and giving up in bafflement).

Shaw works for Tim, who has contacts in turn with a medium and with a chain of businesses to whom he sells - what exactly? I was never sure - across the country, landing Shaw with many rail journeys to run down towns. There is also a mystery around Shaw's boarding house and the unseen occupant of the room next to his.

Victoria has moved into her dead mother's house in the Midlands town and is having it renovated. She makes friends with Pearl, who runs a local café. Names are shifty here - we get different versions of Victoria's surname at different times, at first this looks as though it's meant to be due to Shaw's confusion or memory but in fact I think she's introduced differently by the narrator at different times. Similarly, sometimes Victoria refers to her friend Pearl as such, sometimes as "the waitress". Pearl is knowing of the locals, speaking to Victoria of groups and localities, rivalries and factions. In both strands of the story there seems to be a struggle, though between whom, and over what, is obscure. Eventually, Pearl vanishes, having apparently walked into a shallow pond, and the final part of Victoria's story focusses on her attempt to find the waitress, leading her to (perhaps) a closer knowledge and understanding of her mother.

That is about as clear as I can be over the "story" in this book. It's not meant, I think, to be obvious, it may not even be meant to be "there" in the sense of complete, coherent and self-consistent. Rather it is "there" in the sense of being present, glimpsed, seen differently at different times because it has evolved and developed, or is being seen form different viewpoints.

The themes are clearer, I think - layers of the past rising to interact with the present. This is sometimes a geological metaphor (note, though, that while the implication in the title is on some kind of buried land, what most often seems to be happening is the effect of rising, or shifting, waters - Harrison emphasises how the diverted River Severn, flowing South rather than North after the ice age, carved a gorge which exposed deposits of easily won and useful minerals - fireclay, coal, tars, limestone - to kickstart the Industrial Revolution). It is sometimes a genetic metaphor, with Tim and his sister, the medium (who seem at odds in some way - Time has Shaw spy on her) involved in some kind of online group which seems to centre around alternate human ancestry.

Actually, that doesn't make the themes seen clearer, does it? This is a very knotty, rich and evocative book which I think perhaps can only really be grasped by reading it, not be reading anything about it. To get the most from it, it needs to be read, and taken in, slowly. I don't mean by that, "read in a solemn and po-faced manner". The atmosphere of this story is simply gorgeous, Harrison deftly sketching the workings of a provincial town, the miasma-y nights of the creeks and backyards in West London, or the almost alien shouts and boasts to be heard on city streets late at night. The effect is cumulative, and unsettling, but also revealing: it's like stepping into an Edward Hopper picture, but on a night when the power has gone down.

In short, I'm a fan of this book, but I know I can't easily, or well, explain why. Do read it, if you like this kind of thing you will REALLY like The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again.

For more information about The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, see the publisher's website here.

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