Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott review – magical, mythical historical fiction

Rebecca Stott’s superb third novel, Dark Earth, dramatises the parallels between archaeology and historical fiction. Stott is a renowned historian, but in this excavation of London’s deep past she has created something radically new and beautiful, a book that retells a period of our national past that straddles the line between history and myth.

The title refers to the layers of black soil whose presence in archaeological digs around London reveals the several hundred years during which the city was abandoned in the wake of the Roman invasion. The novel opens in AD500 with the “Sun Kings” – the Romans – gone and London a place of ruins and memories, called the “Ghost City” by the local tribespeople. This is, as Stott says in a note at the end of the book, “perhaps the darkest corner of British history”.

Our heroes are sisters Isla and Blue, daughters of the Great Smith, a Saxon who has been exiled to a mudflat in the middle of the Thames. The girls’ mother was, like Boudicca, a member of the Ikeni tribe, murdered by raiders. At the beginning of the novel, Smith dies and the girls find themselves alone and seemingly powerless.

Isla has eyes of different colours, a sign of the second sight, which visits her in vivid dreams. She has also, much against the taboos of her tribe, learned the art of sword-making. Blue has her own mantic powers, being skilled in divination and “leechcraft”. The girls find themselves drawn into the court from which their father had been exiled, that of Osric, king of the Saxons, descended from “Hengist and Horsa, the first Seax warrior brothers”.

All is not well with Osric, though. This is an age of turmoil and flux: the Saxons carry memories of the “Old Country” from which they had fled to England; Osric has a new wife from Gaul who professes a dangerous religion – Christianity; Osric’s favourite son, Vort, is machinating to seize power from his ailing father. Now there come whispers from the west of a young Briton gathering tribes around him in an attempt to overthrow the Saxons. His name? Arthur.

This is a book that seeks to do for British myth what Natalie Haynes and Madeline Miller have done so brilliantly for classical literature: uncovering stories of feminine power that have been occluded by the male hand of history. Isla and Blue end up in the Rookery, a female community within the walls of the Ghost City, making their home amid the ruins and learning how to access their mysterious gifts.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant feels like a useful touchstone for this book: it too used this dark period of history to illuminate profound truths about the way we understand ourselves, about the lies and misdirections inscribed in our record of the past. The end of Stott’s book condenses centuries into a few shimmering pages of prose, lifting the reader up through the layers of time, making us feel at once how distant and how close we are to this ghostly London, to Isla and Blue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: