In the course of a life-long reading career I’ve read many fictional and true accounts based on the theme of identity, family and belonging, but I can unhesitatingly say that I’ve never read anything like Daisy Johnson’s novel, from the perspectives of plot, structure and writing quality. I can quite see why it’s made the 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist.
The narrator is Gretel, who has finally tracked down her mother Sarah after years of searching. Sarah is suffering from the onset of dementia. So far , so clear; but thereafter events and people become confusing: who is Marcus? Who is Margot ? who is Fiona? And yet again, where is Sarah ? Sarah not only wanders away from Gretel’s cottage, but her mind and her sanity wander with frequency, making the story fluid, just like the River which serves as a connecting thread to the story, as well as a somewhat ominous backdrop.
For thirteen years Gretel and Sarah lived on a barge moored on The River, and we are introduced to Charlie and also to the creepy Bonak. Who or what is the Bonak? at the end of the novel we discover the answer via a detour into magical realism. I’m happy with magical realism as a writer’s tool, but in this instance, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.
The basic premise of the novel is a re-imagining of the Oedipus myth but Daisy J took the bold step of feminising the myth: the protagonists are all women – apart from the slain father, that is. The book also introduces the element of transgenderism.
It would be fair to say the novel is complex in plot and structure. You need to have your wits about you when you read it – well, I certainly did! And I’m glad I’d read a number of reviews before I tackled the book.
I loved the writing. Daisy J writes with a primal energy about The River, and about the natural world, and for me, The River was as much a character as the human actors in the tale.
I know the book will remain with me, I nearly wrote ‘haunt me’ for some time to come, but that’s an over dramatic statement in my case, although other reviewers found the book ‘disturbing’. In fact, the more I think about it, there’s a dark undercurrent to the story which is what makes the book so powerful.
I can’t wait to see what Daisy Johnson comes up with next!
Highly recommended and Not to Be Missed.