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M John Harrison wins the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize with The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

The “genre contrarian” wins this year’s prize for “fiction at its most novel” with an uncanny tale of Brexit Britain.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

M John Harrison has won the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize for The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, a novel set in a world on the brink of collapse. The winner of the £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize, which celebrates “fiction at its most novel” and is run in association with the New Statesman, was announced during an online ceremony on Wednesday evening.

Goldsmiths judge Will Eaves said: “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a brilliant realist fantasy about love in middle age and the dissolution of the postwar settlement. In a series of startling knights’ moves across our inner and outer landscapes, M John Harrison quietly overturns all grounds for supposing we know who we are and where we have come from.” 

Harrison, 75, who is the author of more than 25 books, gained recognition as one of the major stylists of modern fantasy with his Viriconium series and the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Born in Rugby and now living in Shropshire, he has been writing novels, short fiction and literary criticism since 1966. 

Harrison has been described as a “genre contrarian”, and The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, published by Gollancz, combines modern fantasy and science fiction with folk horror and psychogeography. The novel also merges the mundane with the mythological, the cerebral with the spontaneous.

In an interview with Leo Robson, Harrison spoke of his interest in balancing these elements: “Conceptualism makes a frame, sets parameters, limits definitions. It’s nerdy, always working out its own implications to a minute degree, like a man in a pub argument who can’t give up on an analogy. Whereas being alive is this sad but luminous muddle best conveyed by doing street photography, writing down the things that happen to you and around you. For me the language of science fiction must never be fully conceptualist, never fully cognitive. It’s a poetics.”

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In an article for the New Statesman, the chair of judges, the biographer and critic Frances Wilson, points out that the novel is not as formally innovative as last year’s winning book, Lucy Ellmann’s 1,000-page Ducks, Newburyport, written almost entirely as one sprawling sentence. But Harrison’s narrative, Wilson writes, “composed of regular chapters in which regular sentences form regular paragraphs, is precisely about not noticing when things are out of the ordinary… The novel’s inventiveness is embedded in its very DNA.”

She adds: “The Sunken Land is absurdist, bleak, moving and, in the purest sense, unheimlich. A political prophecy set in a Brexit Britain of estranging mundanity, it operates like a dream we have had before but keep forgetting. The luminous sentences appear sometimes to hover above the page before crossing some sort of fault line where they fall and then rise again. Other experimental novels unstitch language, character and form, but Harrison unstitches the reader herself.”

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Alongside Wilson and Eaves, the judging panel included the critic and regular NS contributor Chris Power, and the author Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who was shortlisted for the prize in 2016.

According to Harrison, the Goldsmiths Prize is necessary because “the novel always needs shaking up”. “We need [the prize],” he added, “for the same reason we need a lively, energetic independent publishing sector: so that the eccentric, the under-represented, the idiolectic and the mould-breaking can maintain a presence in the face of the predictable.”

Former winners of the Goldsmiths Prize, now in its eighth year, include Ali Smith and Nicola Barker. The other five shortlisted books were Mr Beethoven by Paul Griffiths, A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo, Meanwhile in Dopamine City by DBC Pierre, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey and Bina by Anakana Schofield.

M John Harrison will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 21 November. Tickets are available here.