Beneath The World, A Sea by Chris Beckett (book review).

When I read the cover blurb for Chis Beckett’s new novel ‘Beneath The World, A Sea’, it seemed vaguely familiar. A British policeman is sent to investigate the killings of the indigenous species of the Submundo Delta, the Muendes, whom the local human populace do not consider to be sentient. The Muendes mess with their minds and to make things stranger and the only way into the Delta is through the Zona, a region that wipes any memories of having been there. These ingredients and the unearthly purple forest reminded me of a couple of stories in Chris Beckett’s 2013 collection, ‘The Peacock Cloak’.

The two stories in question were ‘The Caramel Forest’ and ‘Day 29’, both of which were set on the colony world Lutania where mysterious indigenous beings bring fear to the lives of most of the human colonists. Those who leave the planet to be transmitted back to Earth undergo a process that will wipe out their memory of their final weeks on the planet. I re-read both of those stories when I finished ‘Beneath The World, A Sea’ to compare them and found that although the setting is basically the same, the tone of the story is wholly different.

Chris Beckett has re-imagined the world of Lutania, removing the overt sfnal elements and giving it more of a ‘Land That Time Forgot’ setting here on Earth. The scientific explanations for memory loss and interplanetary colonisation have been replaced with unexplained, almost mystical phenomenon that envelope the Submundo Delta.

The two original short stories share with this novel Chris Beckett’s wonderful ability to weave normal-seeming characters and their mundane lives into extraordinary settings. In this way ‘Beneath The Word, A Sea’ was much more reminiscent of his short stories collections ‘The Turing Test’ and ‘The Peacock Cloak’ than of his recent novels.

The unsettling effect of the Submundo Delta on its inhabitants also adds to this ability to blend the bizarre with the banal. The forest seems to exude an air of acceptance and lethargy, so that police inspector Ben Ronson struggles to maintain any interest in the case at hand. He becomes distracted with the eerie beauty of the forest and the ambivalent companionship of his fellow travellers, while his assignment refuses to take on any kind of definition that he can grab hold of or apply his skills to. He shows no interest in reading the diaries he recorded as they crossed through the Zona on their riverboat and loses days simply wandering aimlessly through the forest. Just reading the book, I found myself hypnotised by the forest and drugged into acceptance of his meanderings.

The story unfolds through the eyes of three characters: the aforementioned policeman, anthropologist Hyacinth, who has journeyed back to the Delta to continue her research, and Justine, a potter who has lived in the Delta’s one and only town for ten years. Their viewpoints overlap, allowing us to experience the same incidents from alternative points of view and the effect of the Muendes means that the inner thoughts and motivations of them and other, secondary characters are occasionally manifested, adding an extra dimension to their relationships.

It’s an indefinable, mesmerising book that explores the unique world of the Submundo Delta and forces us to accept that not everything has an explanation and that the modern world cannot provide the solution to all problems. Ben Ronson struggles to come to terms with this in the face of local apathy and entrenched languor. Chris Beckett has produced something that defies convention and leaves you with a dream-like satisfaction.

Gareth D Jones

May 2019

(pub: Corvus. 288 page hardback. Price: £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78649155-8)

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