Dark River by Rym Kechacha

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Rym Kechacha worked as a professional ballet dancer with the Northern Ballet before becoming a teacher. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmith’s University and Dark River is her debut novel.

Dark River entwines two parallel stories, both centring on a mother fighting to protect her family from the impact of devastating climate change. One is set in an unnamed city, presumably London, in 2156AD, and the other in pre-historic Doggerland – a land mass that connected Britain to continental Europe, which was eventually flooded by rising sea levels – in around 6200BC.

In Doggerland Shaye and her tribe look on anxiously as their river swells and becomes poisonous and seasonal changes fail to happen in the usual way. Eventually, following the visit of a tattooed spiritual leader from the Oak Grove, they decide to set off for their winter gathering place much earlier than usual. The journey is arduous, and culminates in hard choices and a shocking ceremony. The daily life and culture of the tribe is interesting and perfectly plausible. It feels well-researched. Unlike in The Clan of the Cave Bear Kechacha’s pre-historic people don’t have any almost-magical medical knowledge or extraordinary prowess, nor are they presented as paragons of virtue who ‘live in harmony with nature.’ They’re frightened and uncertain about the future, just like us.

In near-future London Shante finally receives the precious visas that will allow her and her son and sister to travel north to join her husband and escape the rising waters. Of course their journey doesn’t go as smoothly as expected, and ends with them having to travel on foot through the empty edgelands of Britain. The science-fiction aspect of this strand is worn very lightly, with only hints of what life might be like in the future. The family have ‘tabs,’ into which they are required to input data, in order to gain the points they require to access services: there’s a touch of Black Mirror here. The cities have been walled, pumps work day and night to keep the water levels down, the underground has flooded, and the towns have gradually been abandoned for higher ground. But the main focus is on the everyday life of Shante’s family, and the struggle between humans and nature. Kechacha is good at describing the physical feelings of being wet, tired, anxious. At the end of day’s walking, when Shante’s son says anxiously ‘I need the toilet Mum,’ Shante thinks ‘how ridiculous that they should be here, shitting in the woods like the past thousand years never happened.’ It’s a humorous moment that shows how used to our modern technologies we are, how useless when we are deprived of them.

There’s very little human on human conflict in Dark River, only uncaring, faceless bureaucracy in the near-future and uncertain obedience to the mysteries of the tribal elders in pre-historic times. The novel’s focus is very much on nature and how we live with it, how vulnerable we are to it, how small in comparison to its unstoppable forces. But there’s little attention to the way that these pressures might make people behave. Most of us don’t behave well when we’re tired, hungry, uncomfortable and stressed, and there are always people willing to turn a humanitarian crisis into a profit-making business. Many of the horrors experienced by refugees are not inflicted by conflict or bureaucracy, but by those who abuse the vulnerable for their own purposes. Kechacha underplays the human conflicts engendered by climate change, which robs the narrative of both realism and potential drama. But perhaps that’s not the point. By keeping the human conflict minimal Kechacha keeps the focus on Mother Nature and elevates her story to the mythic level.

Dark River has an easy, flowing style, very focussed on the psychological impressions and physical sensations of the characters. The absence of speech marks and use of the present tense throughout heighten the sense of the characters living in the moment, not knowing what their fate will be. Kechacha can be lyrical, with some lovely descriptive language, but this never falls into the hard-work or purple prose territory. Hunters follow the ‘the winding sneak of prey,’ a child’s voice ‘is conspicuous in the night-time orchestra’ of the forest.

Literature about climate change has become so widespread over the past ten years that now we have an acronym for it: cli-fi, although of course apocalyptic fiction about environmental catastrophe has been around for at least a hundred years. These types of apocalyptic novels carry a set of tropes with them: long journeys on foot; shedding technology to re-connect with nature; re-discovering what really matters in life. Frequently the humans are just as dangerous as the environment, in the form of violent gangs or religious cults. Sometimes there is bleak hopelessness, like Cormac Macarthy’s The Road, sometimes there is rebirth like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Dark River falls somewhere in between these camps. It’s neither unrelentingly grim, nor perkily optimistic. There might be some hope to be gained from the knowledge that humanity has been devastated by climate change before, and still survived: but then that wasn’t man-made climate change. On the other hand, there might be a bleak sense of perspective to be gained from the acknowledgement that ‘We are nothing at all to the earth, the sea or sky, we do not matter.’

Dark River is published by Unsung Stories and is available here.

Rym Kechacha

Rym Kechacha was born in London. An omnivorous reader, she writes speculative fiction and is inspired by mythology, nature and art.

Reviewed by Kate Tyte

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