An eerie, watery reimagining of the Oedipus myth set on the canals of Oxford, from the author of Fen
The dictionary doesn’t contain every word. Gretel, a lexicographer by trade, knows this better than most. She grew up on a houseboat with her mother, wandering the canals of Oxford and speaking a private language of their own invention. Her mother disappeared when Gretel was a teen, abandoning her to foster care, and Gretel has tried to move on, spending her days updating dictionary entries.
One phone call from her mother is all it takes for the past to come rushing back. To find her, Gretel will have to recover buried memories of her final, fateful winter on the canals. A runaway boy had found community and shelter with them, and all three were haunted by their past and stalked by an ominous creature lurking in the canal: the bonak. Everything and nothing at once, the bonak was Gretel’s name for the thing she feared most. And now that she’s searching for her mother, she’ll have to face it.
In this electrifying reinterpretation of a classical myth, Daisy Johnson explores questions of fate and free will, gender fluidity, and fractured family relationships. Everything Undera debut novel whose surreal, watery landscape will resonate with fans of Fenis a daring, moving story that will leave you unsettled and unstrung.
Related collections and offers
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Beyond the Black Stump
The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bedside lamp, certain everything we've built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.
It is hard, even now, to know where to start. For you memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles, drawing in and then receding. At times I come close to violence. If you were the woman you were sixteen years ago I think I could do it: beat the truth clean out of you. Now it is not possible. You are too old to beat anything out of. The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.
There is a degeneration at work. You forget where you have left your shoes when they are on your feet. You look at me five or six times a day and ask who I am or tell me to get out, get out. You want to know how you got here, in my house. I tell you over and over. You forget your name or where the bathroom is. I start keeping clean underwear in the kitchen drawer with the cutlery. When I open the fridge my laptop is in there; the phone, the television remote. You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I'm doing there. You are not Gretel, you say. My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful. You are not her.
Some mornings you know exactly who we both are. You get out as many kitchen implements as you can fit on the counter and cook great breakfast feasts, four cloves of garlic in everything, as much cheese as possible. You order me around my own kitchen, tell me to do the washing-up or clean the windows, for god's sake. The decay comes, on these days, slowly. You forget a pan on the stove and burn the pancakes, the sink overflows onto the floor, a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out. I run the bath for you and we go hand in hand up the stairs. These are small moments of peace, almost unbearable.
If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.
Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It's as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn't mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language all our own. You tell me that you can hear the water effing along; I answer that we are far from any river but that I sometimes hear it too. You tell me you need me to leave, you need some sheesh time. I tell you that you are a harpiedoodle and you grow enraged or laugh so hard you cry.
One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock your door open, put on the light. You are sitting up in the narrow spare bed with the sheets pulled to your chin and your mouth open, weeping.
What is it? What's wrong?
You look at me. The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment – because it is night and I am only just awake – I feel a rise of sickening panic. I shake it away. Open the wardrobe and show you the empty inside; help you out of bed so we can crouch together and look beneath, stand at the window and peer out into the black.
There's nothing there. You have to sleep now.
It's here, you say. The Bonak is here.
Most of the time you sit stonily in the armchair regarding me. You have a bad case of eczema on your hands that was never there before and you scratch it with your teeth bared. I try to make you comfortable, but – and I remember this about you now – you find comfort an annoyance. You refuse the tea I bring you, won't eat, barely drink. You swat me away when I approach with pillows. Leave it, you're fussing, give it a rest. So I do. I sit at the small wooden table facing you in the armchair and I listen to you talk. You have an aggressive stamina that carries us through whole nights with barely a pause. Occasionally you'll say, I'm going to the bathroom and rise out of your chair like a mourner from the side of a grave, your hands brushing invisible dust from the front of the trousers I lent you. I'm going now, you'll say and approach the stairs with gravitas, turning back to glare at me as if to say that I cannot continue without you, it is not my story and I must wait until you have returned. Halfway up the stairs you tell me that a person has to own their mistakes, live with them. I open one of the notebooks I've bought and write down everything I can remember. Your words are almost peaceful on the page, somehow disarmed.
I've been thinking about the trace of our memories, whether the trace stays the same or changes as we rewrite them over time. If they are stable as houses and cliffs or decay fast and are replaced, overlaid. Everything we remember is passed down, thought over, is never the way that it was in reality. It makes me fraught, restless. I will never really know what happened.
When you are well enough I take you out to the fields. There were sheep here once but now there is only grass so thin the chalk shows through, lumpy hills rising from the ribs of the ground, a thin stream that burps out of the dirt and sidles down the slope. Every couple of days I declare exercise a cure and we march to the top of the hill, stand sweating and puffing at the top, and then cross down to the stream. Only then do you stop complaining. You crouch by the water and drop your hands into its cold rush until you touch the stony bottom. People, you tell me one day, who grow up around water are different to other people.
What do you mean by that? I say. But you won't answer or have forgotten you said anything to begin with. Still, the thought stays with me through the quiet night. That we are determined by our landscape, that our lives are decided by the hills and the rivers and the trees.
You hit a bad mood. You sulk until it gets dark and then rattle through the house trying to find something to drink stronger than water. Where is it? you shout. Where is it? I do not tell you that I emptied the cupboards when I first found you on the river and brought you here and that you will have to do without. You flop into the armchair and glower. I make you toast, which you upend off the plate onto the floor. I find a pack of cards in one of the drawers and you look at me as if I'm mad.
I don't know, I say. What do you want?
You get out of the chair and point at it. I can see your arms shaking with exhaustion or anger. It's not always going to be my fucking turn, you say. I've told you enough. All of that stuff. All of that shit about me. You jab your splayed hand at the chair. It's your turn.
Fine. What do you want to know? I sit in the armchair. It's burning with your leftover heat. You skulk near the wall, pulling at the sleeves of the waxed jacket you've taken to wearing inside.
Tell me how you found me, you say.
I put my head back, hold my hands so tightly together I can feel the blood booming. It is almost a relief to hear you asking.
This is your story – some lies, some fabrications – and this is the story of the man who was not my father and of Marcus, who was, to begin with, Margot – again, hearsay, guesswork – and this story, finally, is – worst of all – mine. This beginning I lay claim to. This is how, a month ago, I found you.
It had been sixteen years since I last saw you, as I was getting on that bus. At the start of the summer the potholes in the track up to the cottage filled with frogspawn but it was nearly halfway through August and nothing much grew there any more. This place was a boat in another life. That month there were seams of damp around all the walls; in the sudden hill-winds the chimney coughed down bird's nests, shards of eggshell, balls of owl pellet. The floor in the tiny kitchen had a slant that rolled a ball from one end to the other. None of the doors quite fitted. I was thirty-two years old and had been there for seven years. In Australia they spoke about being beyond the black stump. In America they called it in the backwoods or past the jerkwater. These were words which meant: I do not want anyone to find me. I understood that this was a trait I had got from you. I understood that you were always trying to bury yourself so deep even I wouldn't unearth you. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I was an hour and a half from Oxford, where I worked, on the bus. No one but the postman knew I was here. I was protective of my solitude. I gave it space the way others gave space to their religion or politics; I owed nothing to either of those.
For a living I updated dictionary entries. I had been working on break all week. There were index cards spread across the table and some on the floor. The word was tricky and defied simple definition. These were the ones I liked best. They were the same as an earworm, a song that became stuck in your head. Often I would find myself sliding them into sentences where they did not belong. To decipher a code. To break a note. To interrupt. I would work my way through the alphabet, and by the time I had reached the end it would have changed, shifted even a little. The memories I had of you were the same. When I was younger I went over and over them, trying to pick out details, specific colours or sounds. Except each time I revisited one it would be slightly different and I'd realise that I couldn't tell what I'd made up and what had really happened. After that I stopped remembering and tried forgetting instead. I was always much more competent at that.
Every few months I rang the hospitals, the morgues, the police stations and asked if anyone had seen you. Twice in the last sixteen years there had been a flurry of possibility: a raided boating community with a woman matching the description I gave; a couple of kids who said they saw a body in the woods but turned out to be lying. I no longer saw you on other women's faces in the street, but ringing morgues had become a habit. Sometimes I thought that I kept doing it to make sure you were not coming back.
That morning I'd been in the office. The air conditioning was turned up so high everyone was in jumpers and scarves, fingerless gloves. Lexicographers are a singular breed. Cold-blooded, slow-thinking, careful with our sentences. At my desk – shuffling index cards – I realised it had been nearly five months since I'd looked for you. The longest gap for a while. I took my phone into the bathroom and called the old places. I had adapted your physical description to allow for passing time. White female, mid-sixties, dark- to grey-haired, five feet one, twelve stone, birthmark on left shoulder, tattoo on ankle.
I was wondering, he said in the last morgue I phoned, if we might get this call.
You always seemed forceful, without end, deathless. I left work early. There were road works at the roundabouts and the bus took a long time to get out of the city. I had never looked much like you but in the reflection of the dirty window I saw you in the angles of my face. Closed my fists over the bar of the seat in front. That evening I would pack a bag, book a rental car, turn off the water. In the morning I would drive to identify your body.
It was dark by the time I got home. I went to turn the light on in the kitchen and found myself afraid – in a way I had not been for years – in case you were standing there. I ran the tap over my hands until the water was steaming. You were shorter than I was, wide around the hips, feet so small you sometimes joked they'd been bound when you were a child. You did not cut your hair, and it was long and dark, coarse at the top. Now and then you'd have me plait it. Gretel, you have fast fingers. You would laugh. I had not remembered that for a long time. What it felt like to touch your hair. Can you make a mermaid tail? No, not like that, try again. One more time.
Excerpted from "Everything Under"
Copyright © 2018 Daisy Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.