Author Spotlight: Dark River, Rym Kechacha.

Dark River (2020) is the story of two mothers living 8000 years apart; one in Mesolithic Doggerland and one in a flood-ravaged near-future UK. Both women leave their homes to keep their families safe from catastrophic climate change, but neither is prepared for what sacrifices will be asked of them in return.

This novel began to stir in my mind when I was living in London, near the Thames, in Putney. I was cycling between different work places and sometimes I’d cycle upstream, heading west along the river path where willows and poplars dipped into the water and geese paddled lazily by the bank. Those rides were filled with a quiet joy as I watched the seasons turn and greeted my favourite trees. Other times, I’d cycle east to work, towards the estuary, and towards the hardworking river of commerce and industry. Then I’d pass shiny walls of glass-fronted apartment blocks, Wandsworth recycling centre and car-filled bridges. On those rides I was dodging traffic and negotiating exhaust fumes and there was barely time to notice the level of the tide, let alone the trees or the birds. I started thinking about the river in all its incarnations through time and all the people who had walked beside it or paddled along it. I started to see it as two rivers, flowing back into the past and forwards into the future.

These thoughts collided with things I was reading about flood myths, the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and the landscapes of Doggerland; the marshy, forested area that connected Britain and Europe at the end of the last ice age that was swallowed by rising sea levels. They started to compost into something new. Two new things; a story set in the future and a story set in the past, two women doing the best they can. Two stories that conveyed something of that sweep of history embodied in the water of the Thames, that took account of the deep time of the earth as well as the accelerated pace of the Anthropocene.

Writing the thread of the novel set in prehistory, I puzzled over questions like ‘were there nettles in Doggerland?’ and ‘how to weave on a neolithic loom.’ When a research avenue ended in a big shrug, I just had to guess. I also found it hard to imagine what the sensory experience of the natural environment would have been for my characters. We live in such a nature-depleted world with changes in the ecosystems and landforms that were unthinkable even a few hundred years ago. An Earth so tenderly explosive with life felt harder for me to orient myself in than a planet in a distant solar system.

But the Earth is not tender. None of my characters feel her to be so and increasingly, neither do we. In the thread of the novel set in the future, my characters are bewildered and helpless without the comforts of their city. I tried to wipe any knowledge I have of plants and animals out of my writing; the better to describe the charisma of a mature oak or the taste of a blackberry ripening for someone who has no language or thought patterns for these beings. The relationships my characters have, yearn for, or reject with the natural world were as important to me as describing the settings for the reader.

When I came to title the novel, I struggled to think of the right words. It was hard to tease out the ideas that had inspired it and pick one to emphasise. In the end I came back to the place that had started it off; the Thames. I discovered that although no one’s quite sure exactly where the name of the river originated, best guesses are that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for darkness. Dark River, dark time, the darkness that now shrouds a land under the sea. I no longer live by the Thames, but I still think of those bike rides to work and I wonder how that tired old river, wrinkled with silt, will weather the coming storms.

By Rym Kechacha.

Rym Kechacha is a writer and teacher living in Norwich. Dark River was published in 2020 by Unsung Stories.

“I love stories that nest inside others, stories that trick you and stories that change the structure of your heart.”

Twitter: @RymKechacha