“Under the Surface” by Daisy Johnson

It is the debut novel by 31-year-old British author Daisy Johnson; He published it when he had just published his first, collection of short stories. swamp And in the same year, 2018, he made it to the short list of the Booker Prize, the most recognized literary award in the United Kingdom. She was just 28 years old and became the youngest author to make it to the final list. success of Below the surface Don’t bully her: in 2020 she published Sister’s, even better novel. But that is another story.

Below the surface Among other things, there is a re-reading of a tragedy by Sophocles. We won’t say that he takes her name until the back cover of the book and it is an error that hinders the reading of the novel as it becomes a search for clues that make him fully involved in everything Johnson does. prevents it from happening. OK, beyond context classic.

The novel has a winding structure or, rather, follows a thread resembling a river or memory that may retain a piece of its history, but it is cut, it weakens, then it It becomes a torrent again. Time also moves back and forth, not right inside flashbackBut on parallel lines. It sounds confusing but it’s not: all you have to do is get off the trip, which is on calm water, with few shores. The tone and structure are very suitable for the material: Gretel, a woman who works as a lexicographer – this sounds ambitious, but in fact she relates the definitions of words to a dictionary, a little at home, at the office Little – At the age of 16 he was abandoned by his mother. She ended her teen years with families who received her temporarily and in the homes of young people; But he never stopped looking for the mother Sarah who gave him a wild, wild, unusual childhood.

Gretel and Sarah, mother and daughter, lived together in a boat on the river: Johnson does not specify the exact place, but much of Britain is driven through canals in which people live, some for pleasure, some alone, others whom they love. It is called “river gypsies” and many poor and vulnerable people, who fish and have little connection with towns and cities. A social worker explains the lives of the residents of the Inner Rivers, saying: “When I started this I spent time in the canals. This is not an easy task. Down there they have their own communities, their own rules. They don’t call the police or social services when something goes wrong. They have their right. This is another world”.

Sarah is not a river lady, although we know very little about her, as Gretel barely knows her mother. We know that at the age of 30, when she was working as a waitress, she met Charlie, who lived on a boat, and although at first she did not understand what the attraction was about. I was dazzling him, she stayed with him. Sarah is small, rotten, unkind. His impulses are certain, his detachment is legendary. He is capable of collusion and charisma, his sexual desire is strong, but affectionate relationships are as muddy as the bottom of a river. She is a noble character, a woman full of secrets, unmistakable but very present, above all because the relationship with Gretel is told with desperation: the daughter does not understand the abandonment and seeks and finds her mother. It’s too late, because the mother is engulfed in dementia (maybe she always was, but it worked, more or less) and her memory is fragile and she, to put it off, is fickle, tearful, restless . He finds her with a mastectomy they don’t talk about, for example; Sara tends to commit suicide and tries to run away all the time. Gretel, though she doesn’t make it clear, begs for some leniency or responsibility, for her care, for her affection, to reconstruct her story. He asks her to be his mother. But Sarah doesn’t know, she can’t.

In addition, Gretel is behind another memory. Childhood on the ship was filled with superstition and a private language between mother and daughter, which confuses the memory. The main character was the “bonk”, a magical creature that represents all the fears and misfortunes that sometimes hang over those living in the canals; “Gasgus” is something pleasant, “Chah” is the need to be alone time. There are silences and presences: the father’s absence and, for a time, the visit of a teenager named Marcus, who suddenly disappears and, what Gretel believes, is the great mystery of his childhood and his mother’s deterioration. Is. Gretel has also forgotten the many years on the ship, perhaps for safety: she remembers more of the brief time in which they moved – or fled – and stayed in a stable, in dorms, even on buses. , lived dead from sleep. The escape from the ship follows the disappearance of Marcus, Gretel realizes this but does not know the connection between the two events, so she also searches for him and finds him many years later in a suburban home with the young man’s parents. see you. It is from there that the past is uncovered and the tragedy above is revealed.

Johnson also has solid and sometimes beautiful prose, which is accurate in an unconventional way. “He withdrew his hand and felt something being bitten, a limb amputated,” he writes of a moment of sudden sexual attraction. “The grief of that family was like a mighty light,” he says of the people of a river who have just lost a child. One word tastes like “powdered, expired yogurt or burnt toast”. Of his discovery and memory, he explains: “I am thinking of the mark left by my memories, whether it remains unchangeable or changes when we rewrite it. Whether the memories are like houses and rocks. Be it solid or they deteriorate fast and we replace them, we cover them up. Everything we remember gets spoiled and digested, it was never really there. It hurts me , worries me. I’ll never know what really happened.”

Below the surface There are some thick lines, such as an effective but somewhat predictable rewrite of classic tragedy and the character of Fiona, a charming transsexual woman described as brutally (and delicately) but perhaps not fully developed, Especially given that he is the one who catalyzes the final resolution. But these weaknesses do not harm this mysterious and desolate novel written with wisdom, beauty and compassion.


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