This book is deliciously bizarre and pretty much the very definition of uncanny.
It seems on its surface to be a straightforward story of two people dealing with mid-life malaise, who kind of come together but then don’t really, who are each dealing with distress caused by parent, who don’t really have any direction or desires, who are just kind of swimming aimlessly through life (pun intended). But all around the edges of this ostensibly normal tale (and, more pertinently, beneath its surface) there are strange goings-on that unsettle the narrative and make you unsure, as a reader, of exactly what it is you’re reading.
I don’t know exactly what it is I read. The book walks a remarkable line between crystal clarity and utter opaqueness. For all that its setting is quite mundane (the outskirts of London, a town in the Midlands, grim little flats, florescent-lit offices) and its narrative arc (such as it is) is easy enough to trace, many parts of the novel have a vaguely hallucinogenic or dreamlike quality—the uncomfortable kind of dreams that aren’t outright nightmares, but that leave you feeling uneasy the next day.
Nobody really connects with anyone else here, people look and talk past each other, as if everyone is slightly out of phase, or on slightly different planes. Figures appear whose faces you can’t quite make out, words are spoken that you can’t quite catch. Everything is just a bit “off.” It’s like looking at a seemingly normal scene and then just catching something odd out of the corner of your eye, but when you try to take a closer look at the oddity, it’s already gone, or it was never there in the first place.
This is a perfect portrait of a damp and alienating England, a place of austerity and isolation, grim little Brexit Britain as it actually is…but with added fish people. Maybe. Or maybe not? Or maybe actually a full-on fishpocalypse? Or maybe not…
I almost feel like this book is a kind of structural mirror to Piranesi. Piranesi throws you in at the deep end, starting out in an utterly alien and incomprehensible world whose contours gradually emerge and become more comprehensible. But The Sunken Land starts out in what seems like a comprehensible world and gets increasingly slippery as you go along. It’s only when you reach the end that you wonder if the waters were actually over your head the whole time.