Three characters in search of their parents. In Daisy Johnson‘s novel it is a daughter searching for her mother (and much else); in Michael Ondaatje‘s novel it is a son, searching for his mother’s past (and his own identity) and in my shadow book, Call of the Curlew, it is an elderly woman looking back over her own past.
Everything Under, the title of Daisy’s debut novel is rather misleading, one thinks of “under the sun”, but it is not so much that as under the water. Gretel is partly living with her mother from whom she has been severed for a long time. Gretel is a lexicographer and has been looking for her missing parent on and off, and her search has led her back emotionally to a period when the two of them lived in a boat on a river.
At some point, they are joined by a waif called Marcus. Gretel’s search leads her eventually to the adopted parents of the said waif, and to talk to Fiona, a savant, who has been responsible for the waif leaving the house.
But as with Greek tragedies like Oedipus, sometimes we don’t know who our parents are.
In a compact, lucid and compelling narrative, Daisy Johnson leads the reader through a labyrinthine tale, partly a meditation on the meaning of words, and partly a study of whether or not we escape our Fate or create it.
The book opens thus:
The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bedside lamp, certain everything we’ve built has gone in the night. We become strangers to places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.
The second book, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje also has waterways cut into the skin. Here in London 1945, two young children are suddenly abandoned by their parents, the father goes to the Far East as part of his job with Unilever; the mother, Rose stays on for a while carefully packing her trunk with items she is going to need when she joins her husband; they leave the two children, Rachel and Nathaniel with a friend, The Moth and a table full of strangers.
The novel is written from the viewpoint of a much older Nathaniel, trying after his mother’s death to piece together all the things that happened to separate them; his mother’s apparent deception, her clandestine goings on and her secret war.
This has caused his sister enormous pain, and in a moment of extreme stress she realises that she hates her mother and will no longer have anything to do with either of them, partly because at some point Nathaniel goes to live with Rose in her parents’ home in Suffolk.
The prose is lyrical and the story convoluted, but Ondaatje is rightly regarded as one of the finest novelists of our time. There is not a stray sentence in the whole book, every word from beginning to end is purposeful and full of meaning, even if it is only as the reader reaches the end of the book that the linchpin drops into the axle and the whole wheel turns full circle.
In my shadow book, Elizabeth Brooks novel Cry of the Curlew, also a debut novel, we swing between December 2015 and December 1940. Virginia Wrathmell is eighty-five, all her life since she was quite young she has known deep down that one day she will have to atone for something she did when she was only a young girl.
On the day that the sign comes, in the form of a curlew’s skull, she is ready and sees at once what has to be done. As the year turns, she will fulfil her destiny. Only on the last day, just as she is prepared, something from the past comes back to skew her plans.
The book divides, chapter by chapter, between December 31 and New Year’s Day, from 2015 to 1940. It tells the story in an uncomplicated manner, with much natural loveliness in its descriptions of the house, Salt Winds and the marshland that sweeps away beyond the stone walls of the garden. This is both a modern story and a wartime story, the two things are inextricably linked, even though there is a long gap.
As in the Daisy Johnson novel, Virginia has been misled by something, and when she discovers the deception, she does something unforgiveable; the atonement for which she is about to accomplish.