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264 pages, Hardcover
First published July 12, 2018
I'd always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this or that.Growing up amidst the secluded society of folks living along the river in Southern England (it is frequently mentioned that the river folk don’t trust police and “take care” of issues themselves, an ominous phrase that works as another brick in the untamed tone which permeates the novel), her childhood was tinged with wildness and, while she is haunted by their past, she is living a present deeply rooted in her personal history. Having an invented language she spoke with her mother--a major joy in the novel are the words like duvduv (best translated as anything comforting), sheesh time (being alone), or effing (the sound the river makes as if moves) being used with the prose understood by the reader as a method of pulling you into the logic of the novel--and growing up with the encyclopedia as her primary reading material, it seems fitting that Gretel now works as a lexicographer. However, try as she might to neatly capture reality in words, her own reality escapes her, particularly the one attached to the most fearsome word from her childhood: the deadly bonak which stalked them and the mysterious stranger they befriended one fateful winter.
The river cut into the land. It was no good. She walked and walked until she slept. She saw the people on passing or moored boats looking at her and understood she did not look like a boy. She looked like something in between, uncertain, only half made.
I understood suddenly what you had done by creating your own language and teaching it to me. We were aliens. We were like the last people on earth. If, in any sense, language determined how we thought then I could never have been any other way than the way I am. And the language I grew up speaking was one no one else spoke. So I was always going to be isolated, lonely, uncomfortable in the presence of others. It was in my language. It was in the language you gave me.
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.”
“There were some things she said that I did not remember though I thought I’d remembered everything about that time. (...) It unnerved me. Even the history I thought I’d kept was wrong. I knocked my fist against the counter.”
“The Bonak is here too, rattling through the rooms above our heads, languishing in the bath. Now and then it has your eyes or long feet rather than a tail. Now and then it has fur rather than scales or walks upright or is a shadow, barely even there. (...) There are flat-roofed boats floundering and a man who whittles a lure big enough to catch what we are afraid of. Whatever we are afraid of.”
“Effind along, sheesh time, harpiedoodle, sprung, messin, Bonak. Bonak, Bonak, Bonak. Words like breadcrumbs.”
“(...) you say only that there is no escaping, that the way we will end up is coded into us from the moment we are born and that any decisions we make are only mirages, ghosts to convince us of free will.”
“But sometimes I wonder if you are right and if all of our choices are remnants of all the choices we made before. As if decisions were shards from the bombs of our previous actions.”