Saturday, 28 July 2018

downpour, harvests contd, creative writing summer school, mst alum daisy johnson, everything under, man booker, beware the bonak

























Downpour at about five this morning. Ran to close the wide-open windows - though in about ten minutes it was gone. Welcomely cool now.

Harvested the last of the blackcurrants earlier in the week. Delicious lightly stewed. Intensity of flavour; rich fruity syrup!

The apples are rounding, despite the drought. If they grow to maturity, their taste will be the best, according to a piece in the Times.

Am hoping to dig the first spuds tomorrow - Maris Peer - but am not hopeful of a big crop.

Will lift the onions and shallots this afternoon, all being well, and put them in trays to dry.

The Creative Writing Summer School is underway. Wonderful to meet the students.

Took a break from Jane Eyre to read Daisy Johnson's debut novel Everything Under. An alum of the Oxford MSt in Creative Writing, her book has just been long-listed for the Man Booker.

Oxford canals, modern-day Oedipal plotline, lexicography, monsters, myths, identity, the persistence of past in present... What's not to like.

Not that the canals remain 'Oxford' ones for long. Realism shading into Gothic psycho-landscapes and dramas. The waterways - are they rivers or canals? - peopled by outsiders making their own rules, telling their own stories, living individual lives in a strung-out parallel society.

Humans and animals appear and disappear (sometimes underwater and for good), fear stalks the towpaths in the form of a jaw-snapping beast - the Bonak.

Johnson is excellent on the bewildering tangle of deep-riverside wastelands, inescapably littered with human detritus. The nymphs have certainly departed. There is a relish of the grime and filth of nature into which the characters slip and slide and are coated by. Childhood fascinations lingering in adulthood that you find in Sartre's La Nausée, perhaps.

I also liked her observations of a delightfully dysfunctional - house-living - family that the principal narrator Gretel stays with for a time on her quest for the mother who abandoned her. Johnson is great at evoking the impulsive behaviour of the kids, the scars born by the house - 'toys with no heads, holes in the walls, the handle to the bathroom pulled right off'. There is relentless inquistivness, experimentation and lifefulness. Small wonder the dad is a secret drinker.

The family, though, isn't what it seems. The couple's children are adopted, a child who was their own has disappeared. Part of the jigsaw of changeable human relationships, psychologies and sexualities that the novel pieces together.

Are there things that don't work? Of course. The balancing of the characters is somewhat uneven. Gretel is the principal narrator but her story can be overshadowed by those of the other characters. Not necessarily a problem - plenty of novels do this - The Great Gatsby for one, Elmet by Fiona Mozley for another - but I felt that if Gretel's prominence could have been amplified a touch more from time to time, the relationship between the reader and her would have been stronger. This would have made the book's final pages more powerful. I also felt that the moment when Gretel realises her and her mother's private language has set her apart from the rest of society could have been done more convincingly.

But such quibbles can't take away from this novel's vividly created world, the range and complexity of its emotional and psychological preoccupations and its shear un-put-downable momentum.

I knew what the Bonak would look like a long time before it appeared. I know that beast.

With Everything Under, Johnson taps into the zeitgeist of our terrors, needs, confusions and desires.

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