The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison is a brilliant but perplexing book, straddling the line between fantasy and literary fiction. It’s sort of proto-fantasy in which two principal characters, Shaw and Victoria, play out their lives, as if stuck to a purpose that no longer fits them, hardly able to relate to each other or anyone else. Another reality, a primal Britain, seems to beckon, but The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again only hints at what that might be and never takes you there.
Their world around London and the Midlands, is a run-down character in its own right, sodden with rains but also seeming to be on the verge of returning to some primal watery state.
Victoria has an occasional relationship with Shaw but recognizes how lost he is and how little he will ever be able to communicate with her. The novel alternates sections from his point of view and from hers. Shaw is very much as Victoria finds him, wandering into and out of strange jobs, especially with a neighbor in his decrepit London boarding house.
That is Tim Swann, who hires Shaw to staff his tiny office on a rotting barge. The work they do is obscure, selling batches of Swann’s book about genes and bartering sundry items that seem quite useless.
There is a deeper purpose in Swann’s work, but Shaw can’t figure out what it is. A hint comes when Shaw studies a world map hanging in Swann’s office. When stared at in a certain way, the land and oceans seem to reverse out, revealing vast new continents formerly submerged under the seas.
One of his assignments is to visit a medium name Annie Swann, apparently Tim’s sister, (I say apparently because identities and relationships seem as fluid at times as the constant references to water) and record his sessions with her. Though the sessions amount to little more than her going into a trance and saying little or nothing afterward, she has a faithful following of mostly middle aged men. Shaw notes an empty space on the wall in Annie’s house that is the same size as Tim’s map, and possession of that map is a source of tension between the two.
Shaw drifts along, always detached from his own life, at one point admitting that he is really in a panic and unable to do much to change himself. He visits his mother, suffering from dementia, in a care home, and she constantly urges him to get on with his life. She keeps calling him by different names, urges him to bring out albums of old photos and then tears them to pieces, as if she is saying there is nothing in the past to cling to. It is late in the novel before he finally experiences a liberating moment that brings him closer to new possibilities in his life.
Victoria is the more adventurous one (“She was seeking change but secretly afraid of it.”) She leaves London for her dead mother’s home in a peculiar community in Shropshire. She writes emails to Shaw, who never responds, and spends much of her time exploring both the house she has inherited and the town and its inhabitants.
Her guide is Pearl, a waitress at a local diner, who turns out to be part of a web of relationships that once included Victoria’s mother. She and the land around the town itself near the River Severn begin to reveal many secrets.
There are glimpses of strange creatures living in and around water who never quite come out in the open but flicker on the edges of life. Victoria keeps hearing voices call out, as if someone is looking for lost people or pets, but she never gets a good look at them, and they simply disappear. She sets about making changes to her mother’s house, and workmen appear to help fix up the place.
They are a strange lot. They hardly communicate when spoken to. They gather in rooms in a boarding house where rooms and occupants shift around. They get together in groups to clog dance and frequently urge Victoria to read a nineteenth century children’s story called The Water Babies.
There must be a dozen references to people finding or handing out copies of this book, which is about children who drown but then turn into beings who can live under water. (Its author, Charles Kingsley, was a proponent of Darwin’s ideas of evolution and opposed the prevalent idea that species were forever fixed by a creator.)
There are many references to other forms of human life, the shifting genetic inheritance of humans and the lurking power of the hidden waters of the world that may soon change the conditions of life.
Victoria recalls her father’s story of a race of fish people in South America who live in isolation from other indigenous inhabitants. She gives Shaw a Peruvian fish model that appears labile. It stays with him throughout the story, at times seeming to have a life of its own.
When examining a set of steps on the banks of the river Severn, Victoria watches as a strange flow of soapy water cascades down, leaving a “thing” at her feet, neither mammal nor fish, perhaps a stage in the life of an octopus, she thinks.
There are references to past transformations in the landscape that suddenly make the present landforms seem transient and on the verge of a major shift as waters rise to the surface from underground.
But all these are hints, and there is no propulsive plot to push you along, only the accumulating power of the subtle influences in the landscape and waterscape and the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of strange people.
So the operative word of the title, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, is “begins.” There is a transformative process underway which is gradually rendering useless the characters’ present lives, forcing them toward a recognition that there may be a different fate awaiting them.
When dramatic changes do occur, we do not see if there is really a different world. It remains elusive but slowly progressing over the land and into certain people. It’s not that there is another reality waiting to be entered and explored. Rather, it seems this world of ours is gradually shifting, along with changes to our genes as something new but also ancient returns.
Harrison’s writing is always brilliant and deeply perceptive, whether he’s writing science fiction or literary novels. He pulls every detail of his characters’ personal history, the places they live in and the land (and water) that surround them into his narrative. But this novel will frustrate anyone looking for a more traditional sort of fantasy with portals, magic, and forces of good contending with evil.
I have no idea if the author is going to write any more about this version of Britain, but he has set the stage for something new and strange (there are many references to “sea change”). I would love to follow his characters into whatever other reality they may be encountering.