There were many things about this book – shortlisted for the Man Booker this year – which drew my attention: its narrator, Gretel, is a lexicographer and I love words; it is a re-imagining of a myth and I do like me a good mythologising; and it revolves around a childhood that took place upon a canal boat – at least for thirteen years. And, however much it pains me to admit it, I do have fond memories of the numerous canal boat holidays my parents took me on year after year after year from the age of about five.
By the time I’d hit my teens, and my friends were jetting off to foreign climes whilst my parents packed for Birmingham, Rugby, or the four counties ring, I’d have died before admitting that I enjoyed them. And, just as Daisy Johnson’s narrator explains, the waterways of England do have a hidden cryptic language and culture of their own. Songs and narratives and vocabulary. Gongoozlers is one that sticks with me: to idly sit and watch the canal boaters heaving open 200 year old oaken gates or winding up paddles thick with rust and grease and not offering to help.
I had hoped, I must say, for a greater focus on that personal and intimate language that Sarah and Gretel Whiting – mother and daughter – shared on the canal boat. Daisy Johnson drops in a couple of examples of sheesh time and things being duvduv but that dual feature of language – to cement a tribe together and exclude others from the tribe – was only very briefly touched on.
The narrative is in three sections, woven together, ostensibly written as Gretel re-telling her experiences to her mother: The River, which follows the character of Marcus, who encounters Sarah and Gretel after running from home; The Hunt, which recounts Gretel’s search for her mother and her meeting Marcus’ parents; and The Cottage in which Gretel struggles to manage her mother and what seems to be her dementia in which the language and memories she has slip from her. One of the most powerful moments in the story comes from the sight of Sarah, having forgotten a word, eating the index card that Gretel had been working on.
The mythology within the story is the Oedipus myth: Marcus is Oedipus, fleeing from home because of his horror at the prophecy the he would kill his father and sleep with his mother; Fiona, a transgender woman, takes the role of the dual-sexed Tiresias, and delivers the prophecy. Inevitably, as most readers will probably know, in attempting to escape his fate, Marcus brings it about.
Woven within this, as the name of our narrator suggests, is the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, as Gretel follows breadcrumbs back home. And yet, despite these literary roots, the scent and touch of the riverbank and the water and the physicality of the world – especially the water world – keeps it very grounded.
And the novel needs that grounding. It is an obvious metaphor, but the narrative has a fluidity to it: genders flow from one to another – Marcus had been Margot when she had fled her adoptive home; parents are revealed to have been adoptive parents; one child becomes an echo of another. The relationship between Sarah and Gretel is a twisted and distorted mother-child one and the heart of the novel, caught between longing and horror, need and revulsion, love and hate. The childish mother; the maternal daughter. Throughout the novel, I was wondering whether the Sarah being addressed was alive or whether she were a ghost or memory or had been conjured up from Gretel’s longing to be reunited.
And beneath the surface of the narrative is the darkness of the Bonak. The Canal Thief. The taker of dogs and cats and sheep. The dark personification of fears and the submerged terrors. Again, we are never fully sure whether this creature, more muscled and fluid than it should be, is ever real or realised, haunting dreams and memories. With the Oedipal backbone, it is temptingly easy to apply a Freudian interpretation to the Bonak as the embodiment of the subconscious perhaps, yet within the novel it seems somehow to slip between our fingers as we try to impose that interpretation to it.
It is a messy book, a complicated read, an ambitious concept – not unlike the messy, complicated and ambitious process of making our way through the real world’s entanglements of relationships, memories, desires and needs. It was not without its issues, but it will be a book which remains with me and a deserved Man Booker shortlist novel.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Date: 12th July 2018