Daisy Johnson (Vintage, Jonathan Cape)
Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn't seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded.
Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature. A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel's isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.
Judge Val McDermid comments:‘The single word that sums up this beautifully written debut novel is “fluidity”. It’s set in a world of waterways; nobody’s character remains fixed from start to finish; gender and memory are as fluid as the waters themselves; the flow of myth and folklore runs through it; and even words themselves slither away from attempts to pin down their meaning. Gretel, the young woman at the heart of the book, is a lexicographer. But the true definition she seeks is the restoration of her relationship with her mother, who abandoned her to foster care so she could make a fresh start with a new lover. When they are finally reunited, that desire is complicated and confounded by her mother’s dementia. The past encroaches on the present as we gradually unravel their personal mythologies. It’s a modern variation on Sophocles’s Oedipus, and the twists and turns of the book’s stories braid this together with European folk tales to create a strong narrative river that carries us to a conclusion laced with tantalising possibilities. The natural world is evoked with sinister sensitivity and through it all runs the shadow of our imagined monsters.’