Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, this unsettling novel is about words, wildness and water. The author pieces together the stories of Gretel (a lexicographer), Sarah (her wandering mother) and Marcus (I won’t say more about him in case I spoil the plot for you). There’s also a monster in the river, the dreaded Bonak.
I’m not sure how I feel about this novel. I can see why some reviewers loved it. For a start, it’s very well-written, with not a word out of place. The language is carefully chosen, the meanings explored, reflecting Gretel’s obsession with words. The descriptions feel fresh and original, giving a sense of place and atmosphere. I think the narrative style of this novel would be my definition of ‘literary fiction’. It requires the reader to put some effort into understanding the story and the meanings below the surface. The content is tragic – some reviews have mentioned the similarity to Ancient Greek tragedies (I can’t comment on this, not being educated in this topic) – and if you prefer stories to be resolved in this way, you’ll probably be satisfied with the ending.
I found the reading to be difficult at times, because the dialogue doesn’t have speech marks and is often integrated into larger paragraphs. There isn’t much variety in how the text looks on the page. Maybe this doesn’t bother anyone except for me?
Daisy Johnson is a talented writer but on reflection I admired this novel rather than enjoyed it.