A retelling of Oedipus Rex set in the insular community of the boat people who live along the canals of Oxford.
Gretel was raised in the sole company of her mother, Sarah, on an engineless houseboat moored in a quiet part of the River Thames. Their relationship is intensely iconoclastic and isolated: They haul their own water, fish for much of their food, speak a language peppered with made-up words, school each other with entries from Sarah's encyclopedia. One winter, dogs, cats, and even children begin to go missing from the communities that live on the river. Sarah and 13-year-old Gretel believe it is the work of an uncanny creature they call the Bonak, and, with the help of a wandering boy named Marcus, they determine to trap and kill it. Now Gretel is an adult working as a lexicographer, and Sarah—who abandoned her into foster care 16 years earlier—has come back into her life in an even wilder and more unpredictable form. Sarah's phone call making contact sends Gretel on a quest into her own past: First to find Sarah, then to find Marcus, and finally to confront the Bonak, a creature made flesh by her and her mother's own fears. The book is structured in interwoven sections which alternate among Gretel's first-person perspective and the close-third-person narration of Sarah and Marcus, whose timelines take place in the past. As the truth about Marcus' identity becomes clearer, the haze that surrounds Sarah—a reimagining of Jocasta—deepens. However, where the original tale focuses on the torment of Oedipus himself, here the mother's rage, her despair, and her progressive disassociation from the known world are the centerpieces of the story. Sarah's past leaves lurid scars across her daughter's psyche as the book delves into what it means to live in a world that binds us so cruelly to our fate. Johnson's (Fen, 2017) debut novel explores the determinism of its characters’ choices even as it asserts the fluidity of their genders and their relationships with each other, in prose that harmonizes with the haunting wasteland of its setting—a place where what is discarded takes on new identity if not new life.
A tense, startling book of true beauty and insight. Proof that the oldest of stories contain within them the seeds of our future selves.