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It's not until Gretel is abandoned by her mother at 16 years old and sucked into the care and schooling system that she realises ...
on 13 July 2018
This is the kind of book that I wish every one of my bookish pals were reading at the same time as me so that I at least had people to talk to about it as I was reading. I was bursting with thoughts and ideas and questions, questions, questions!.....not to mention feelings. Oh mate the feelings!
Gretel works as a lexicographer, defining words for the dictionary. Words played a hugely important role in Gretel's childhood and upbringing with her mother on a canal boat on the river.
It's not until Gretel is abandoned by her mother at 16 years old and sucked into the care and schooling system that she realises just how important words are. Her mother had brought her up using completely made up words that Gretel had no idea did not exist in normal everyday language in the outside world. Gretel and her mother Sarah live an isolated life, it's them against the world and sometimes Sarah against Gretel. Sarah clearly suffers with mental illness and alcoholism when Gretel is growing up and their lives are far from stable.
After her mother's abandonment Gretel finds herself as an adult, trying to locate her mother. Ringing hospitals and morgues, trying to trace Sarah in order that she might be able to answer some questions and fill in some blanks in Gretel's childhood memories of their time on the boat. Gretel has vague recollections of a boy called Marcus who came to stay with them on the boat one winter for a month. She has only a patchy memory and feels she needs to know exactly what happened to him.
We follow Gretel's childhood, the search for her mother and the present day having found her mother back on the river. In the present day Gretel is struggling with a clearly ailing mother, with what appears to be some form of altzheimers or dementia. A woman who Gretel wants to take care of but at the same time shake the truth out of.
We also learn of Marcus's story, his links to Sarah and Gretel and the family he is estranged from and just what happened to him that winter he stayed on the river. A winter where Sarah and Gretel are obsessed with the 'Bonak', a river dwelling creature responsible for stealing items, animals, humans.....Marcus is already wary of what the river people are calling the Canal Thief, a creature that lives in the water but walks on land. A creature the canal communities are terrified of.
The timeline of this book jumps all over the place but the chapters are clearly headed up to show what time thread you're in.
The writing is just so beautiful and atmospheric that I can't even begin to do it justice. Lyrical, with such depth. Highly evocative, depicting the landscape, the river, the wildness of Sarah and Gretel and their tumultuous relationship.
The characters all had many layers to discover. The character of Sarah I found absolutely fascinating. Troubled, bohemian, wild. Gretel by comparison, desperate to belong, desperate for normality. And Marcus, confused, lonely, abandoned, just wanting so much to belong.
There were points in this book where my jaw dropped. There were points where I had to go back and reread what I had just read and let it sink in. Even the introduction had me thinking, had my brain ticking, had me tingling in anticipation of what I knew was to be an amazing book. I was not wrong. The sense of creeping realisation as the true horror of events unfolded just held me captivated.
It's so difficult to put across the sheer magic of this book without giving too much away. I really want everyone to read it so that I have someone to talk to about it. I know that this book will stay ticking over in my mind for some time to come. I was going to say it feels almost fairytale-esque but I think that would be wrong. It's more mythical, magical, perfect.
Utterly absorbing and compelling. I cannot recommend it highly enough.