This is the walk I take.
Each afternoon, at around four o’clock, I leave my house on the east side of Oxford and make my way down to the river. The path is gravelly and wide, lined on one side by brown-stagnant water, on the other by green-tangled scrub. Horses and cattle graze in nearby fields while gaggles of geese patrol the towpath in packs. Two purple-fingered children pick wild blackberries from the bramble. A boy and a man fish for bream beneath the footbridge. A stern-faced rower carves a smooth track through the water past the canal boats lining the banks.
This is the place where Daisy Johnson wrote her debut novel, Everything Under — the place where she lives and writes and works. It is also the place where her book is set — these low-lying waters and overgrown paths forming the literary landscape of her work.
In the book, the young protagonist, Gretel, grows up on a canal boat with her mother — “moored in a city where the bells chimed on the hour”. In Johnson’s imagining the river is a murky, magical place: the water “thick, nearly opaque”, concealing the curled “intestines of roots and trees”; the path lined with “tufts of dandelion” and “swarms of thistles”; and boats “jammed nose to tail” along the banks. It is a temperamental, ever-changing space — descriptions of the natural beauty of the “wild and curved” river sit alongside bleak depictions of “barges strung with dirty flags and broken windows” and “empty gas holders sunk in their metal frames”. It is a place capable of beauty just as much as ugliness. Tranquillity as much as turmoil. Myth and reality ebbing and flowing in the same waters.
Myths have always been a part of this city. They are built into its sandstone walls, woven into its stories of founding fathers and famous thinkers. It is myth that keeps this city and its university enshrined in the collective imagination of this country. A place of deliberate elusiveness and exclusion, whose reputation relies on preserving and passing down such stories and legends.
Myths are a part of this river too. ‘The Isis’ it is called — this section of the Thames that runs through Oxford — though the origin of the name is uncertain. The river does not appear to have carried the name in the days of the Romans or Saxons. Indeed, the name does not appear to have been used at all until the fourteenth century when it was referred to as ‘Isa’. Some believe it may have come from the ancient name for the Thames, ‘Tamesis’, which in the Middle Ages was falsely assumed to be a combination of ‘Thame’ and ‘Isis’. Others say it was not until the establishment of the University that the river got its title; named by students after that protective goddess of ancient Egyptian mythology. Of course, now, the name has shifted again. Myth and politics colliding: petitions seeking to distance the river from the name’s newly-radicalised associations. As I walk along the river I pass The Isis Boathouse (boys in Lycra stacking up boats), The Isis Farmhouse (men in tweed drinking beers). Nothing much changes; everything changes. Beneath the pristine surface of this city, the murky waters are shifting. Narratives are being destabilised, doors being opened, protests taking over city squares. Unlike those grand structures that make up this city, its myths are not untouchable, the tides are turning, and this sense is present in Johnson’s novel.
Re-appropriating the story of Oedipus, Johnson takes the Sophoclean tragedy from the high planes of antiquity and brings them down the low-lying banks of the river. In her re-imagining, Oedipus is a girl named Margot. Abandoned on the banks of the river as an infant, Margot is taken into the home of a childless couple where she is raised as their own. It is only when a new neighbour, a woman named Fiona, moves next door that the stable narrative of Margot’s life begins to unravel. Fiona is a modern day Oracle, a transgender clairvoyant, a woman in a man’s body: “like a fish still alive in the belly of a heron.” It is Fiona who delivers Margot the prophecy. Frightened by this foretelling of what she will do to her father, do with her mother, Margot packs a bag and heads for the river. In doing so she not only leaves behind her family, but her identity too. Down on the river she becomes he, Margot becomes Marcus. With his chest wrapped in cling-film, Marcus makes his way along the towpath. There he meets Charlie — a blind man living on a canal boat. A man who takes him in until an act of irrevocable violence sees Marcus flee — away from the father and towards the mother — along the river until he crosses paths with Gretel and her mother.
On those rare days when the weather is warm, I swim in the river. I leave my bike on the grass and strip down to my swimmers. The water is dark and cold, the surface littered with fallen leaves, bottom lined with slimy weed. Careful, it’s slippery, a father cautions his daughter, guiding her onto the bank. A woman swims slow, breast-stroked laps, head above water. A dog barks at his owner. Somewhere, a bottle breaks. Down here, families and students bathe side-by-side with groups of teenagers, the elderly, the homeless. Two men in a beaten-up canoe pull up at the banks with a beat box on their shoulder, deep house music reverberating across the water. A group of teenagers smoke dope and light fires on the grass. I lie on the banks with my partner reading J.R.R Tolkien, Renata Adler. We are a strange collection down here. While in the town there are clearer divides and borders, markers of territory, down here people mingle and collide, swim in the same soiled waters; this liminal space between nature and culture, the river and the city. I dive into the water below and resurface near a mossy tree-root. Beside me, a man treads water. Careful, he says there are eels down there. I let my body slip beneath the surface for a moment, suspended in that dark in-between, then pull myself onto the banks.
Things go missing in the river, Gretel tells us: “The mud from the edges of the riverbanks, the rabbits in their cavernous burrows, the moorhens that slept on the low branches, stray dogs wandering where they shouldn’t.” As I walk, I see a bike preserved in rust and mud, hauled out from the depths and left on the banks. A river barge half-sunk in the water. An abandoned trolley filled with trash. Out here, past the boundaries of the university and the boathouses, the river is murkier, wilder: the boats run down, the people rougher.
As a girl, Gretel lives in perpetual fear of something living beneath the surface. A creature that lives in the water and walks on the land. A canal thief. A thing they name ‘The Bonak’.
This is one of the many words that Gretel and her mother invent. A language that exists only between them:
effing – ‘the sound of the river at night’
sheesh time – ‘a moment of alone time’
duvduv – ‘something good’
Bonak – ‘what we are afraid of’.
For the two women, language is slippery, unmoored, created in and out of the landscape they inhabit. Through school and into adulthood, Gretel is plagued by these words, their use marking her as an outsider, as somehow different.
Railing against this, she gets a job as a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, making a living from defining words, tying them down, setting them in concrete. There is satisfaction in this, a stability she craves. But the centre will not hold. She is haunted by nightmares about cabinets filled with words spelled backwards, words fallen out of use, her offices flooded with dank, weedy waters. That other language, that other life, tugging at her like a tide.
Just as things go missing in the river, so too, do words. Plagued with the onset of dementia, Gretel’s mother, Sarah, feels her language slipping out from under her. Now an old woman, we watch as she rages and swirls against words, trying to grasp at them “like shoals of fish”. Thrown together in a small cottage after years apart, the two women fester in a “swamp of miscommunication”, trying to find the words to bridge their distances, conquer their fears. Bonak – ‘what we are afraid of’. That creature they imagined into existence through language, and now can’t erase. That fear that “might never have been there if we hadn’t thought it up”.
As I walk along the river, I feel the landscape shifting. Johnson’s words, her imagined world, mixing with my reality. I am drawn to Johnson’s writing the way I am drawn to this river, returning to it again and again, the book tucked under my arm as I walk. Why is it we are drawn to fiction set in spaces we inhabit? Is it simply to recognise ourselves in the things we read? A curious impulse, a need for affirmation? Or it is this merging of the real and the imagined that we desire? To feel our exterior and interior worlds overlap, like water lapping at the banks?
As I walk, I wonder if Johnson has walked this path. Whether she has passed these same canal boats, stopped at this bridge, looking out over this same stretch of muddy water. A part of me feels I might be able to sense her, as though great writers, and writing, leave a trace on our landscapes. It’s not such an outlandish concept in a place like Oxford. A place where on a daily stroll you might pass the pub where Tolkien drank, the lamppost that inspired Lewis’ Narnia, the dining hall where Carroll met his Alice. These writers have left their traces on the sandstone and the marble. Those stable, enduring (male) landmarks. Johnson has left hers here, among the water and the weed. The fluctuating (female/gender-fluid) spaces of the river.
“We are determined by our landscape,” Johnsons writes, “our lives are decided by the hills and the rivers and the trees.” As I walk along the river, I think about how words can shape and change a landscape. How a landscape can shape and change our words.
‘Walks in Oxford will never be the same again,’ I Tweeted, the day after finishing the book.
‘Glad I ruined scenic walks for you,’ Johnson wrote back.
Rebecca Slater is a writer from Sydney currently studying at the University of Oxford.