The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again
M. John Harrison – a review
Well, this was an interesting read. Harrison’s novel is a double portrait of Brexit Britain and the isolated lives within it. It explores epistemological uncertainty: the subsidence of identity and slippage of meaning in the everyday. The author refuses the comforts of closure. He jabs a stick at the disturbing folklore of the urban & the rural … the little myths and rituals we furnish our lives with. With surreal disquietude the population seem to be devolving into some kind of aquatic throwback – a deliquescent infantilism: Brexitanian water babies.
Harrison is the master of the memorable sentence – with exhaustive invention he continually fashions glittering shards of prose, like freshly unearthed microliths glinting in the sun. And yet the prose is rarely hard to follow – the obscurity is in the precise nature of things, which he continually destabilises. He offers a sharp-eyed portrait of contemporary life in a small, damp island off the Atlantic seaboard – isolated by its own cultural solipsism, living off former glories that long ago lost any kind of global cache beyond the tourist cash cow of ‘heritage’. But unlike the regulated, signposted trails that the characters come across in their almost somnambulistic wanderings, there is minimal signposting here. The reader, like the two main protagonists, are left to flounder in their own strange, twilight lives. Shaw, unstable and undermined by the unreliable narrations of his uncaring care-home bound mother, lives in London and ends up working for a purveyor of a curious aquatic conspiracy; his sometime lover, Victoria, relocates to the ‘sticks’, inheriting her mother’s house in the Welsh Marches – an ostensibly idyllic rural ‘escape’ that comes with its own set of problems. The anti-pastoral disenchantment is mirrored by the enchantment of the urban. Domestic and public spaces are destabilised by increasingly weird happenings. Nothing is quite what it seems, and it is almost impossible to grasp entirely what is going on – like the protagonists, we are left in the dark, refused admittance to the occult inner circles, and continually thrown by the disquieting tides around them. Harrison’s agenda seems to be to induce ontological anxiety: can we trust anything, even ourselves? Nothing and nobody is quite what is seems. Something chthonic emerges in the interstices of people’s atomised lives. The characters drift apart, missing each other’s calls or letters, or choosing to ignore them. And in the gaps the uncanny enters in – creating the unheimlich within the home, until what ‘should’ be native becomes alien, and vice versa. We become othered from our own lives.
From his long career in Fantasy and Science Fiction (in which he has gained many loyal fans), Harrison has ‘emerged’ as one of Britain’s most original writers. His hybrid writing refuses to play by the rules, and as a result it produces the very best kind of Fantastika – genre-fluid writing that is truly innovative. Winning the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction, Harrison’s book reminds us what the novel form is truly for.