Book Review: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison | BSFA Project 2021

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Genre : Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

Publisher : Gollancz

Length : 219 pages

Format : Ebook

Rating : 2 stars

Publication Date: June 25th 2020


Shaw had a breakdown, but he’s getting himself back together. He has a single room, a job on a decaying London barge, and an on-off affair with a doctor’s daughter called Victoria, who claims to have seen her first corpse at age thirteen.

It’s not ideal, but it’s a life. Or it would be if Shaw hadn’t got himself involved in a conspiracy theory that, on dark nights by the river, seems less and less theoretical…

Meanwhile, Victoria is up in the Midlands, renovating her dead mother’s house, trying to make new friends. But what, exactly, happened to her mother? Why has the local waitress disappeared into a shallow pool in a field behind the house? And why is the town so obsessed with that old Victorian morality tale, The Water Babies?

As Shaw and Victoria struggle to maintain their relationship, the sunken lands are rising up again, unnoticed in the shadows around them.


Shaw is in the midst of an existential crisis; he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life and he’s oblivious to the people around him. One day, he decides that he wants to get himself back together and he moves to a new house where he rents a single room. He gets a job as a courier for his neighbor who seems to be running a company that is closely linked to a conspiracy theory blog and he regularly visits his mother suffering from dementia.

Victoria, Shaw’s former lover, is also dealing with her own problems. She just moved to her late-mother house in the Midlands. There she meets her new neighbors and tries to understand who her mother was and why everyone is obsessed with The Water Babies, an old Victorian tale.

I read The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again because it was shortlisted for the BSFA award. I probably won’t have picked up this novel on my own because the synopsis wasn’t very appealing to me but I decided to give it a try anyway. Well, let’s say it was quite the experience.

First of all, if you want to read a science fiction story, don’t read this book. I still can’t figure out why it was shortlisted for a genre award when it’s not a genre story. It does have a few fantastical elements so I could categorize this book as magical realism but science fiction? No.

This book is mainly a story about two people who are so focused on their own life and their own misery that they are unable to see all the weird things going on around them. Shaw is so obsessed with his loneliness that he’s unable to answer (or even bother to read) Victoria’s emails. He accepts a job from his neighbor not because he wants to but because he feels like he has to. He never asks any questions, he has zero social interaction skills and he never tries to make his life better in any way.

Victoria is pretty much the same. She sends emails to Shaw every day knowing he doesn’t even read them. She does so not because she feels attached to him but because it’s an outlet to talk about herself. She decides to move to her mother’s home because it feels like an adventure but there, she realizes that it doesn’t make her life more interesting than it was in London. On the contrary, now that she’s alone in a big home, she has more time to think about her situation and how out of place she feels. In the Midlands, she meets Pearl, a bartender that she doesn’t even like but hang-out with anyway. One day, Pearl disappears and Victoria is only bothered by it because she doesn’t have anyone to talk to anymore, not because she misses Pearl.

As you might have guessed, the two protagonists are truly unlikeable and so is everyone else in this story. All the characters are self-centered to the point they can’t have a single normal interaction with other people. Also, everyone except Shaw and Victoria is apparently obsessed with a conspiracy theory blog about strange water creatures and Harrison never lets the reader know why.

This book is probably a giant metaphor about Brexit and how people slowly turn to conspiracy theories to explain things happening around them. I’m sure some people would find the entire novel fascinating and thought-provoking but sadly, the whole thing went way above my head.

It felt like Harrison wrote this book to feel obscure and evasive on purpose. A lot of sentences made no sense to me and, if at first, I tried to re-read the most confusing parts over and over to understand them, after a while my eyes started to gloss over more than a few pages.

The atmosphere was definitely unique and the rare moments I thought I was finally getting somewhere with this book were interesting but, in the end, I never managed to grasp anything from the story.  I honestly don’t understand why it was shortlisted for the BSFA and I can’t think of a single person I could recommend this book to…

Rating: 2 out of 5.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison | BSFA Project 2021

  1. The book is well liked by many, but if you go into this expecting science fiction, it will indeed disappoint. It’s shortlisted for the BSFA because of Harrison’s history as a seminal speculative fiction writer (Viriconium,…).

    I think this novel was spectacular on a sentence level, I felt the prose to be brilliant, but the content is indeed murky and obscure. It was a good excercise in letting go of trying to understand everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, I don’t understand why it was shortlisted, it’s a very odd choice especially compared to the other shortlisted titles (like The City We Became, The Doors of Eden or Piranesi for example).
      You might enjoy more than I did but I definitely wouldn’t recommend this book to you lol


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