Dark River by Rym Kechacha
Unsung Stories, pb, £8.19
Reviewed by Rima Devereaux
This haunting book offers us two parallel narratives. Shaye’s story is set in the seventh millennium BC. She is a young woman with a lively son, Ludi, who increasingly longs to be independent. A guest who is an initiate of the oak grove comes to invite Shaye’s family to take part in a ceremony that will stop the river from rising and bring the water birds back. The men were away hunting but are now already at the oak grove, and Shaye is looking forward to seeing her lover, Marl, the father of her child.
Shante’s story is set in the mid twenty-second century. She is a young woman with a son living in London, in a world where the rising river means that people are confined to the cities, visas are needed to travel between them, and the ‘edgelands’ outside are overgrown and dangerous. Technology is advanced: everyone has a ‘tab’ which is a bit like an iPhone but it seems to be compulsory to input personal data such as your temperature and what you’ve eaten, on a daily basis. Because Zeb, Shante’s husband, lives in the north, the family has applied to join him there, and at the beginning of the story, the visas come through. Each woman is travelling with a sister: Shante’s sister Grainne and Shaye’s sister Gai Gai, who gives birth en route.
So there begin two journeys, many centuries apart. They are linked by fear of the rising water but also by the transcendent value of love and family relationships, especially Shaye’s and Shante’s love for their sons. We get an idea of the paradoxes of parenthood: the mothers’ sense of the otherness but also the closeness of their sons’ bodies and identities. A photo album becomes an object, frozen in time, capturing the moments it commemorates, and leading Shante to ponder on how you never know what the future will bring.
The stories unfold slowly, as loss follows upon loss. Shante’s father Charlie refuses to go north with them out of a sentimental attachment to London, and the elder Cherl, who is a kind of father figure to Shaye (perhaps her biological father), stays behind out of cussedness. The parallels between the two eras tend to obscure the differences in personality between the two heroines, but that might be deliberate; the characters are nonetheless fully realized and alive. Much more important in the book, along with the theme of relationships, is the tremendous sense of place, with beautiful writing evoking a frighteningly restricted future and a wild, tough past.
Shante and her family board a train, but the train is hijacked and the guard is found dead, forcing them to start walking through the edgelands. Their tabs stop working. The trappings of modern life fall away and become useless, but there is no returning to the primitive. Shante is unused to hearing animal noises at night. As she lies looking up at the sky, we know she sees the same stars as Shaye would have done, but she also sees satellites. Civilization makes its mark on the world.
The twenty-second century does not have the sense of the transcendent (the ‘spirits’) that we find in the past. Shaye’s world prioritizes community and her people find support in ceremonies that mark the passing of the year. Shante’s world is one totally divorced from nature – the family cannot even recognize blackberries. I was reminded of the role of the sea in the cult 1980s film, The Flipside of Dominick Hide.
Shante’s family feel the forest is friendly as they get to know it, but we are sure this is an illusion – Shaye would have been wary. Who is really civilized? Not Shante, as she steals belongings from the two corpses they encounter, even though she feels bad about it, whereas when Shaye comes across two bodies, she helps to bury them. But ultimately, the prehistoric world’s faith in the spirits leads to a horrific tragedy for Shaye and her family, one that cuts right to the heart of the book’s preoccupation with love relationships.
The lyrical atmosphere of Shaye’s world and the attention to the detail of prehistoric life reminded me of Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother. The use of parallel narratives where the same theme is explored in the same place but in different eras is a nod to Alan Garner’s Red Shift. It is a technique that Kechacha exploits to the full. This is a novel that hurtles towards its ending, when hope is extinguished, and leaves a vivid impression.