Harrison excels at evoking the deadened absurdity of the everyday. The highlight in one small, unnamed conurbation “a hundred miles from anywhere” is “a Marks & Spencer the size of a suburb”. A tea room is frequented by working men who sit “staring about them in their bib-and-brace chainsaw trousers like aged toddlers in a buggy”. Shaw visits his mother, an enigmatic woman who had “from the age of twenty … left a different man every five years or so and started a new family somewhere else”, while she is “in dementia care the other side of Twickenham on the A316”. Their conversations are fitful, unilluminating and sad.
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.
M John Harrison, who has spent a career puncturing the expectations and pretensions of the science fiction genre, outdoes himself here, showing how people, deprived of the tools and technology they are used to, find their very sense of personal reality bleeding away. In place of all our fantastical tech, something far older and wetter is emerging from Albion’s ooze. Harrison’s unsettling and melancholy novel, gritted with farce and dreadful laughter, shouts award-winner on every page.
At his peak, Harrison summons the same awesome linguistic invocation of change as Dickens in Dombey and Son, another novel troubled by the collapse of certainty in the face of rapid social and economic transformation. It’s no coincidence that Victoria (clock the name) has come to roost at the edge of the Severn gorge. It’s haunted country, “the demented, unpredictable, immeasurably fortunate geology, fuel for the industrial light and magic that had once changed the world: the iron money, the engine money, the steam and tontine money, the raw underground money hidden in unconformable strata, secret seams and voids, in jumbled shales, fireclays, tar, coal measures and thinly bedded limestone – to exit as seeps and springs above the heritage museums and leisure trails and decommissioned railways; while associated subsidence gnawed quietly away at the superficial architecture of the Gorge.”
We are in the fallout of that long boom now, its unpredictable collapse. Unsettling and insinuating, fabulously alert to the spaces between things, Harrison is without peer as a chronicler of the fraught, unsteady state we’re in.