Beverley Birch grew up in East Africa, a region with a rich cultural history, which is mostly forgotten or ignored by western civilisations. In her latest novel, Song Beneath the Tides, she returns to the East African coast of her youth. The setting is fictional but modelled on Kenya and Tanzania.
The story has a dual narrative, that is cleverly intertwined. The first is set in the present day and told in the first person but focalised through the eyes of the two central characters: Ally, a teenage girl newly-arrived from England with her two brothers and Leli, a teenage boy, from the local coastal village, Shanza. When the two meet, they have an instant connection that goes deeper than physical attraction, a bond of souls. Off Shanza’s shore is a sacred island which becomes a focus in the plot.
‘Sacred,’ He nodded. ‘The place there is very sacred, in Kisiri’s forest.’
He pronounced the word so that it sounded like a secret, if you didn’t listen carefully. Secret and sacred. A tingle went up her spine. Secret and sacred. She looked at Kisiri, from this angle a curl of white shore, leaning palms, the green swell of the tide round it. (p17)
Ally is staying with her Aunt Carole in a coastal home rented for the holiday. Here amongst the mangrove creeks, the beaches and the coral reefs, the family observe strange activity at night, boats scan the coastline, and they feel as though they are being watched. As the plot thickens, it becomes apparent that the developers of a large hotel complex have an interest in Kisiri and want to use it for their purposes, regardless of the wishes of the local people. Their activities are surreptitious; they may even have nefarious intent. There’s a sense of danger, tension and mystery. And the question of land rights is brought sharply into relief.
The second narrative is told in the first person written as a journal. From the style of writing, the reader quickly realises that this writing is not from the present time.
It is the first hour of the first day of my sixteenth year, and I have a terrible dread. Vultures gather. Our ships rot on their moorings. Two more men have died, and three begin to fail. We dig more graves in the court below and soon there will be no square of ground to take more dead.’ (p7)
The unnamed narrator (we do not discover his name until the final pages of the story) is Portuguese. From the contemporary narrative, the reader learns alongside Ally about the colonial history of the East African coast. Most readers will likely know little about the history of Africa. From the eighth century (the period when Vikings were invading Britain) the Swahili coast was a vibrant mix of African and Arab culture. The cities of Mombasa, Mogadishu and Zanzibar stretched out along the coastline were centres for trade with Persia, Arabia, India and China. In the sixteenth century, Europe’s so-called age of ‘discovery’, ships travelled across the oceans searching for new trading routes and partners. Vasco da Gama found a way to navigate the Cape of Good Hope and began a rapacious campaign to subject the people and raze the cities to the ground. Discovery was little more than piracy. Portugal was not the only country to pursue colonising dreams. In the 1960s, when I was in primary school, we learnt about the heroic exploits of Sir Francis Drake. The following quote is from the history textbook that we had in school at that time R J Unstead Tudors and Stuarts
From San Francisco (or New Albion) he sailed ever westward to the Spice Islands, the East Indies and Africa, reaching England at last, after three years, with treasure worth a million pounds. This was the most glorious voyage an Englishman had ever made, and it stirred the hearts of English sailors (from 1975 edition p22)
While history has been revised to remove the valorisation of slavers and invaders, there is still little told about the achievements of the African continent and people in this period. Ally does not know this history and the exposition is skilfully woven into the plot through the introduction of an archaeologist, Makena, who Ally meets when she visits the ruins of one of the great Swahili cities with her aunt and brothers. A sensitive reader will begin to draw parallels between the historical plot and the contemporary story in which commercial interests are in effect colonising the East African coast. The luxury hotel in this story is built with little respect for the wishes of the communities that have inhabited the area for generations. At one point a local school is closed without warning because a better road needs to be built for tourists. And while travel broadens the mind, the seed is planted that perhaps the holidaymakers lounging by the hotel pool may not even step outside the complex to explore the country they are visiting. There’s a bitter irony that while it is possible to build hotels, the building of a local clinic has been postponed for supposed financial reasons.
Birch draws her characters with sensitivity. Writing characters outside your own culture can be a minefield, but in this instance, Birch is writing out of experience and with care. Ally’s aunt is also aware of cultural sensitivities and tries to impress on her niece that she cannot assume that behavioural norms transfer easily across cultures. Her advice is clumsily given, but most of us will have experienced at some point the difficulty of trying to say the right thing and not knowing how best to express it.
At times I was put in mind of Alan Garner, although this is a very different story and writing style. There’s a sense in which myth, history and memory are present in the physical landscape, and I loved the descriptions of the setting which conjured up vivid mental imagery, as you can see in this short extract taken from a visit to the ruins of a once-great Swahili city buried in the dunes:
Banks of white sand masked the sea, though Ally could hear surf breaking beyond the dune-ridge. A large hill climbed to their right, clothed in tall grasses and scattered trees and topped by a massive, spreading baobab. Everywhere, the shrill of birdsong, the click of insects, the skim and whirr of small creatures. Sunlight burned, dazzled.
She pivoted. A full circle… turned on… and on…
Then she swung back, looked again. On the hill. Stone?
Peeping through the arms of the baobab – she saw it just as Ben whooped and clambered up to it, Jack in pursuit. She chased after them, sidestepping with a whelp as something small and brown shot between her feet and chattered angrily from somewhere low and out of sight among bushes.
Closer, what she’d seen as a lone pillar became one leg of an arch, high and pointed, set in a vast facade of carved geometric patterns, mottled with russet lichen, golden in the midday light. Climbing plants veiled the other leg, giving it the false look of a tree trunk wound with leafy growth. Its feet were lost in blankets of yellow flowers. Adjacent walls had long since tumbled to hillocks of broken stone knitted with grasses, as if the land battled to reclaim them. Fingers of sunlight felt their way through the arch. (p82)
Song Beneath the Tides is a thrilling adventure with important things to say, and it is superbly written. I strongly recommend it for school libraries and classrooms for a readership around 11+. Read it for yourself too.
Read a story starter written by Beverley Birch
Read our article about the representation of Africa in children’s books.
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