Somewhere in South America, in the year 1990, a policeman, Ben Ronson, arrives in the town of Amizad, located in the heart of a magenta tree-d forest, beyond a zone where your memories of the time within our lost, to put an end to the practice of killing the native creatures known as duendes. The duendes are humanoid creatures who have a profound psychic affect on the people they come near. Ronson brings with him the experience of having worked to stop community murders in other parts of the world, and three notebooks he wrote about the time when he passed through the zone, about which he obviously now remembers nothing. The books, and the people and creatures he meets in the submundo delta, will enrich, plague and taunt Ronson whilst the bizarre world in which he has found himself twists and turns its way to survival (or not).
Beneath the World, A Sea is a quite remarkable novel. It very quickly abandons what you believe will be the driving force of the narrative – a rather blunt exploration of cultural collision – for something deeper and more unsettling.
Alongside our policeman’s journey are a handful of other people, all with their own motivations for losing themselves to the delta. Jael, the brilliant brain who has rejected the superficial trappings of success as part of a hunt for deeper knowledge, works with Rico, her boyfriend who is possibly able to communicate with the duendes; Justine, who believes she has failed in life and now seeks to find some purpose; Hyacinth, who collects stories from the native population but for what reason she seems never to be entirely sure; and Dolby, the oilman, who wants to unlock the natural resources this unexploited part of the world can offer.
My frames of reference aren’t vast but I was reminded a lot, and in a very positive way, of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things in the way that the central purpose of the main character fades as the character themselves confront the reality, and possibly, arrogance of their starting position.
Despite the interlocking of themes, this is a pretty straightforward read. Beckett does an excellent job in world creation without relying on lengthy periods of exposition. Some will lament the slow burn and not-all-revealed nature of the story but then there are books out there for people who want excitement, adventure and really wild things. Beneath the World, A Sea has some quite brilliant observations about life, the universe and everything instead. And it does so in way that is beguiling, compelling and unsettling. It’s everything good science fiction should be.