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Dark River by Rym Kechacha

Dark River by Rym Kechacha
4.5
Book Name: Dark River
Author: Rym Kechacha
Publisher(s): Unsung Stories
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fiction / Science Fiction / Dystopia
Release Date: February 24, 2020

It’s hard not to feel that the road is a kind of scar across the land, and the forest is like the new pink tissue forming beneath the old wound, knitting the body back together after being rent apart. Shante thinks of the faint lilac scar across her belly form the C-section giving birth to Locke, and the way that even now a stray finger of Zeb’s across the jagged skin will send shivers through her body, her skin sewn shut but the nerves connected differently, an electrical circuit still functioning but fusing every now and then, just for attention.

She’ll wear that mark for the rest of her life, forever branded as the woman who held this boy in her womb. What mark will this land still bear of humans in a hundred years?

Rym Kechacha’s debut novel Dark River (2020) is a powerful and disturbing work that tackles anxieties about climate change head on. Following the journey of two young mothers, one in prehistoric Doggerland, one in future London, as they try to escape the rising waters and protect their families, the novel is a sobering reflection on humanity’s relationship with its environment, the power of motherhood and the realisation that there are things we cannot protect our loved ones from.

In 6200 BC in Doggerland, Shaye must travel from the traditional place of plenty to a sacred oak grove with her son Ludi and her pregnant sister Gai Gai, where her people will convene to discuss the rising waters that are threatening their homelands, and she will see her lover Marl again. In London in the year 2156 AD, Shante prepares to leave the crumbling city for the more prosperous north with her sister Grainne and her son Locke to meet her lover Zeb, as soon as she can secure the necessary visa and paperwork. By following the journeys of these two mothers some 8000 years apart, one displaced by a natural phenomenon, one displaced by anthropogenic climate change, Kechacha tells a story of how our relationship to nature has changed, as well as how feelings of family, friendship and love remain unchanging.

However, while Kechacha celebrates the bonds of family and the primal strength of motherhood, she is under no delusion that the power of love is all that is needed to save us. In the end, the measures taken by post-collapse Britain in Shante’s time may prove no more effective than the ritual sacrifices performed by Shaye’s people to placate the spirits of nature.

The experience of motherhood links both Shante and Shaye, and motherhood is one of the key themes of the book. Kechacha explores the fierce protectiveness of motherhood, the drive to survive, that powers both Shante and Shaye, is the drive to protect their young child from a hostile and frightening environment. This gives them both the strength to carry on outside the limits of their comfort. However, while the novel celebrates motherhood as a primal force to be reckoned with, Kechacha does not shy away from the messiness of female embodiment, nor the pain and danger associated both with childbirth and with rearing a child. Shante gets her period while she is travelling in the wilderness. Gai Gai gives birth whilst Shaye’s people are on the way to the sacred oaks, and Kechacha portrays the birth of her daughter in all its messiness and pain.

Much of the book is about the anxieties of parenthood. Shaye and Shante are both concerned, in different ways, about the survival of their child. Ludi and Locke are just at the stage of their lives where they are no longer babies and no longer so completely dependent on their mothers and are starting to make friends and explore their individuality. Dark River explores the joy, fear and sadness attendant to such shifts in the parent/child relationship.

By contrasting life in Doggerland with life in near-future Britain, Kechacha asks pertinent questions about how our relationship to the world around us has changed in that time. Unlike Shaye, Shante is travelling through a world suffering from humanity’s destructiveness. When her family receive their visas and get the train to the north, their train is highjacked and they are forced to continue the journey on foot. Shante and her family are uprooted from their technological surroundings of the city, where they are constantly connected to the internet via their tabs, and must enter into a relationship with nature more like that of Shaye’s people, where nature is both a source of nurturing and protection but also of fear and danger. As her journey continues, Shante finds herself knowing the land better, coming up with her own names for the plants that feed them and the trees that shelter them, as well as living in fear of dying from dehydration and exposure.

Dark River also explores the institutionalised cruelty of borders and border control. The procedure of applying to a visa in Shante’s time is labyrinthine, and the list of requirements one must meet in order to apply, only to have to wait indefinitely for a response and be willing and able to uproot your life at the last moment. The border is heavily guarded, and those without the correct paperwork are turned away. Shante and her family face an intimidating array of imposing bureaucrats and coldly indifferent doctors and nurses, all who must clear them and declare them fit and healthy before they are allowed in. As the final painful twist of the story comes into play, we are shown these people’s utter indifference to human suffering and personal horrors. The novel is a damning indictment of increased border control, and asks us to extend our empathy and humanity to refugees in a time when governments are closing down their borders and countries turning in on themselves. It is a timely and moving read.

Dark River is ultimately a bleak read, in which the human drive to look after those we love and care for is proved insufficient in the face of something as large and impersonal as climate change. However, its celebration of the universal nature of human love and its evocative and haunting descriptions of changing landscapes help to alleviate the darkness. It is a challenging but necessary book, beautifully written and likely to stay with the reader long after it finishes.

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