M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise again




….Meanwhile there was coming and going on the stairs, especially at night. Voices were raised. Two in the morning, someone dropped a heavy object on the landing, while downstairs someone else leaned on the bell-push or shouted indistinctly from the street. Next door’s sash window, its frame warped by years of river fog, slid up with a long grunting sound. Next day Shaw might glimpse a figure making its way quickly across the landing to the communal bathroom, which it occupied for longer than a normal person; afterwards there was a smell in there. (p 9-10)

Here is Shaw, a middle-aged lost soul in yet another house share. He is going through what he describes as a ‘rough patch’ and has moved into this place with its poky bedroom and shared bathroom to be near his mother, who has dementia and who is a resident in an old age home nearby.

He has a vague relationship with Victoria, whom he calls Nyman, but who calls herself Norman. She is another disaffected soul. They meet and sleep together occasionally but cannot communicate. She leaves London to live in her dead mother’s house in the country.

This book is about inability. Inability to communicate, inability to change one’s life, inability to understand what is going on. It is a story of glimpses; a figure in the distance with a dog, a voice calling ‘Vita’ or a name like that, in the distance, a story of long walks by rivers, a story of endless rain.

Shaw gets an obscure job working for Swann who pays him to take long train journeys transporting cardboard boxes whose contents remain obscure. Victoria uses her last savings to renovate her mother’s house and tries to have a friendship with Pearl. But why do Pearl and her father Ossie have strange old tradesmen sleeping in their house and why does Swann send Shaw to Annie the Medium?

I’ve read the book and I’m still not sure.

This book won the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize, auspiced by Goldsmiths University of London and the New Statesman since 2013. The £10,000 prize is awarded for writing ‘that opens new possibilities for the novel form.‘ Previous winners have been Nicola Barker in 2017 for H(A)PPY a dystopian fantasy with a great deal of type-face experimentation, Robin Robertson in 2018 for The Long Take a novel in narrative poetry and Lucy Ellman in 2019 for Ducks, Newburyport a novel of 1030 pages in one sentence.

This book has been highly praised by reviews in The Guardian and the LATimes. I did not know the author, but M. John Harrison is highly regarded by readers of science fiction. China Mieville describes him as ‘one of the very great writers alive today.’

I would describe this book as being in the realm of psychogeography; walks through parks and beside rivers, pools that disappear, empty boats on the river, the smells of take away food shops, men’s voices on the streets at night as the pubs empty and always the damp and rain. It has a feel of the decline of Britain about it, closed shopping malls and decrepit shops as well as a land in decline.

These old woods, draped over the mess the eighteenth century had made, were warmer than the exposed dip slope; their labyrinthine topography of track and knoll, prolapsed lime kiln and pennystone spoil hill, sprawled away silent and dark on the edge of the Gorge, where every winter on the scarp one more beech tree levered itself out of the mud and leaned tiredly into the catch of its nearest neighbour. ( p 123)

A build up here of what? Some nice descriptive writing creates the atmosphere where the characters wander in a state of confusion, but to what purpose?

Don’t take my word for it. Read other reviews and form your own opinion. I read that M John Harrison has written a book called Light (Kefahuchi Tract Book 1) where the protagonist is a scientist who is also a serial killer. Now that might be more lively.


19 thoughts on “M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise again

  1. I am always thankful that Gert willingly takes on these journeys through Psychogeographies and 1030-page sentences and reports back to us. I feel like a late-13th century person lucky enough to have access to “The Travels of Marco Polo” when it first came out–marveling at worlds unknown to me and not imagined either.

  2. As we so often say, Teri, we do it so you don’t have to.This was a strange one; so much atmosphere and mood, but to what purpose? But I’ve already said that.
    Hope Hawaii is wonderful.

    1. So far, so good, with Hawaii. One has to Covid test, and the rules are exceedingly strict, and a bit confusing. So far, so good — we have jumped through all the hoops, and are still on our way.

  3. Dear friends, It seems to be an intricate story. I would have to read it drawing a map of characters and relationships. ‘Light’ seems to be pure action. Thank you for your excellent posts! You keep us very interested in the stories. Thanks again! Take care!

      1. We need both sides of the coin. Thanks so much for your incredible work of talking about books! It is not easy, my friends. Best to you during the new week and take care!

  4. I too have seen lots of praise for this novel; nevertheless, I remain to be convinced that it’s for me. Oddly enough, it actually sounds relatively conventional, especially when viewed in the context of the previous Goldsmiths winners?

    1. Yes the writing and structure were not at all radical or experimental. Just the strange lack of focus and the building anticipation of something that is never quite realised.

  5. I have heard of him but never tried him out. I like some of the descriptions you give of this title and am intrigued, but whether I’ll ever try it out I don’t know—I’d need to pick it up and physically browse through it.

    1. You are deeply into Plutarch Leslie. We recently had an incident where one of my friends said Marcus Aurelius was addicted to opium which caused our philosopher sister to fly into a rage in his defense. People get very attached to their philosophers.

  6. It is my sworn duty to stand with Marcus Aurelius.
    He did not write his meditations for anyone.
    They were his reflections at the end of the day’s battle to check he had his values straight.
    Whoever decided to publish them did not do it in his spirit.
    He was a reflective, virtuous man and one of the last of Rome’s great Emperors!

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