Henry Hitchings

A tide of paranoid distrust: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, by M. John Harrison, reviewed

Dark energies pulse beneath Britain’s streets in Harrison’s new dystopian novel

M. John Harrison

Over the past 50 years, M. John Harrison has produced a remarkably varied body of work: a dozen atmospheric novels and five volumes of finely controlled short stories that have ranged from austere realism to operatic fantasy.

He is not easily pigeon-holed — an intentional state of affairs, but one that has denied him a large readership. The worlds of his science fiction are truly strange, yet he conjures them with piercing lucidity. For instance, Light (2002) is largely set 400 years in the future. The cosmos Harrison visualises is a place of splintery disruptions, but it is peopled with cruel and slovenly characters whose minds churn in entirely familiar ways. When he moves into less exotic terrain, he’s able to make everyday experiences feel alien — the best example being his 1989 novel Climbers, set in the Pennines among misfits who claw their way up crags, escaping one kind of precariousness by chasing another.

‘I said just look as if you are pushing it over.’

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, his first novel for eight years, is low on incident but richly textured. A vision of dark energies pulsing beneath Britain’s streets, it feels slippery and seedy. The title derives from a lecture by Charles Kingsley, Victorian Britain’s leading advocate of Christian socialism. Kingsley spoke of ‘a great change in the climate of this country’; and in the rheumatic contemporary Britain that Harrison depicts this is both literally and figuratively the case. The waters are rising, and so is a tide of paranoid distrust.

The main character is Shaw, a man in his fifties recovering from what he considers a ‘period of retraction’. He lives modestly in a shared property in East Sheen and occasionally visits his senile mother in her care home nearby. Pleasure of a fidgety sort derives from his entanglement with Victoria, an ‘eroded’ romantic who works in a morgue.

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