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The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again: Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2020 Paperback – 30 June 2020
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- Publisher : Gollancz; 1st edition (30 June 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 384 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1473232155
- ISBN-13 : 978-1473232150
- Dimensions : 15.2 x 2.8 x 23.4 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 58,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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It’s a tribute to Harrison’s huge skill that this larger event proceeds either in the corner of the story or totally off the page. The unfocussed, intermittent affair Lee shares with his partner Victoria both embodies and winks at a parallel discontinuity Harrison imposes on his readers. For us, the blurred emotional ripples between them obscure what might otherwise be a lost episode from Quatermass: apparently, the surfacing of a primeval genetic code which transforms (or fulfils) the toxic banality of an England after Brexit. It transforms Victoria as well, in a passage of Expressionist ecstasy that demands far greater attention than this review allows. If The Water Babies is an implicit counterpart to the book’s concerns at that point, then the ambiguous central scene in Jonathon Glazer’s film Under the Skin also haunts the episode, a similar nexus for rapture and extinction. As so often with Harrison, transfiguration is an act of profoundly questionable grace, in ways unknown to Charles Kingsley.
Other echoes sound. One character reads like an eerie twin of northern comedian Peter Kay, and those rooms that fill suddenly with rigid or dancing figures, like a sinister Bill Tidy cartoon, owe much to Robert Aickman. This is no mean feat. Aickman’s understatement, indeterminacy, and striking oneiric imagery defy the supernatural genre and most writers who try to imitate him. Harrison is a highly deft exception. Equally, giving any book this title immediately hints at Freud and Lovecraft – it’s tempting to label at least one chapter The Shadow Over Barnes – but Harrison’s ability is such that he meets and tilts each of those presences to match his own design. Dry humour and pinpoint description (a train interior is “mute and decorous”; flowers are a “chalky neon”) add to a silvered mix of geology and social dread, fumbled love and furtive metamorphosis. As with all Harrison’s best fiction, an initial reading can only pick at its true freight and mirrored implication, like surface images in the scales on the metallic fish that forms at once an ironic symbol for Lee and Victoria’s stranded passion and a totem for the whole reflective narrative. But if you’ve still to sink into a first, half-unfathomable encounter with this sly and displaced text, don’t hang about here, like Lee Shaw: go and dive into it for yourself, right away.
Never mind, here goes. A very strong sense of place - two places actually, west London and Shropshire by the Severn - together with all the familiar details of 21st century life in the UK - gives us a necessary anchor against the pull of the strange. We follow the adventures of Alex Shaw and Victoria as in conventional fiction, wondering how it's all going to end up. What is real, what is imagined? I am reminded of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - it makes you work. The writing is deliciously subtle and elliptical, nothing is spelled out.
The other powerful presence and I suppose the bedrock of the novel is the awareness of the evolution of the human psyche, its accretions and erosions and eruptions mirroring those of the planet itself.
The end of the story is suitably ambiguous. Shaw, having broken into an unvisited place and recognised himself there, is on the mend. He is thinking of going north in search of Victoria, but it's likely that she has sunk into the same depths he is just emerging from.
Update. I've got it all wrong, the whole book is about an alien conspiracy involving Brexit. This from the author himself, speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival. It means reading the book all over again and rethinking my analysis - appalling (the rethinking, not the re-reading, which will be a pleasure).