Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott review – Anglo-Saxon adventures

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The Guardian

Best known for her Costa-winning autobiography In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott is also a novelist and historian. Her third novel, Dark Earth, is set in AD500 and tells the story of two sisters, Isla and Blue, living in exile on an island on the Great River (known to us as the Thames). When their father dies, the two young women are in danger.

Isla’s eyes “have curses in them” – they are different colours – and she has learned to make Firetongues (swords which apparently will never break). Blue is blessed with “the Sight”, and believes that she does not “belong to anyone”. But in order to survive, the sisters need Kin Protection, so they cross to the distant bank of the Great River to throw themselves on the mercy of Osric, the local overlord, and his power-hungry son Vort. In this world of blood feuds, capricious gods and unburied ancestors, Blue hopes that “muttering nonsense in one of her made up tongues” will keep them safe. Instead, her garbled stories lead to accusations of witchcraft.

After a dramatic night of violence, the two young women are forced to flee across a crumbling bridge into the Ghost City. This enclosed heap of grandiose ruins is what remains of Londinium, which has been deserted since the departure of the “Sun Kings” – the Romans – and is fast sinking into the tidal mud. In this ruined city, the sisters find a community of women who live in what remains of a bathhouse and a brothel. Isla develops a relationship with a woman called Senna. Blue dreams of Caius, who helped her escape from Vort. Yet even within the enclosed walls of the Ghost City they are not safe. They must leave their new friends and take the road to the North.

All of this should make for a brilliant novel – and it nearly does. The landscapes are powerfully recreated with language referencing the rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The empty expanses of reed beds, mudflats and shingle beaches are beautifully evoked and the crumbling city of Londinium becomes entirely real.

There are brief but fascinating insights into the wider politics of an era. This is a time of nascent nation-building, when the landscape itself is being remade (“The kingdoms are starting to find their walls and their field edges now”). There is even talk of a boy in the west – “The one they are calling Arthur.”

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Yet despite careful plotting, impressive research and gorgeous descriptive passages, the novel never quite leaps up from the page. The problem is that a quiet and lyrical book is overwhelmed by Arthurian melodrama. Should a novel focusing on female experience at a time when women were entirely peripheral break away from the traditional quest-and-jeopardy based plot? Not necessarily – but the problem here is that the adventure narrative lacks conviction. The escape in the middle of the book is overwritten, the deus ex machina climax seriously underwritten. Action fails to translate into narrative tension.

Despite these difficulties, this remains a bold and serious novel which successfully recreates a time almost beyond our imagining. If only language, and the dramatisation of place and time, could be recognised as their own adventure.

Dark Earth by is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

July 14, 2022 at 03:41PM Alice Jolly

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