Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.
Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:
“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”
Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.
What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.
Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.
The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.