Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, Everything Under, was shortlisted for 2018’s Man Booker Prize. Of all of the novels on the shortlist, this was the one which appealed to me most, and her short story collection, Fen, has been on my radar for a long time. There has been, quite rightly, a lot of buzz around the novel, and some of the reviews really caught my eye. Most interestingly, The Guardian writes of Johnson’s prose style as ‘a mix of Graham Swift and Angela Carter’.
Everything Under is a modernised retelling of the Classical myth Oedipus Rex. Protagonist Gretel Whiting works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries. Whilst the prose and Gretel’s thoughts are deeply involved in language and the power of words, much of the story proper revolves around her relationship with her mother, Sarah. Whilst they were close when Gretel was small, they are now estranged. Having no knowledge whatsoever of where her mother is, she regularly phones around the local hospitals and morgues to try and locate her. However, things are turned on their head when she receives information from a hospital which ‘interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago.’
When she is introduced into the novel in the present day, Sarah is suffering decline, and a loss of memory. Johnson relays, in quite stark prose, the effects of this upon both herself and Gretel. She writes: ‘You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there. You are not Gretel, you say. My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful. You are not her.’ Despite this sad edge to her condition, there are still moments of lucidity and companionship between mother and daughter, and remembrances of a secret language which they made up when Gretel was small: ‘Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language all our own.’
Gretel and Sarah are both rendered as complex characters, and as the novel continues, their perplexing relationship unfolds. Johnson deftly writes almost an expose of mother and daughter, exploring whether any former love can be recovered between them in the present day. Gretel is a very private person, choosing to live almost in secrecy: ‘I was an hour and a half from Oxford, where I worked, on the bus. No one but the postman knew I was here. I was protective of my solitude.’ She is insightful about her reasoning for searching for her mother, who abandoned her when she was thirteen: ‘I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to… The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor. That was why I looked for you all those years, Sarah. Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall. But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.’ As a character study, the novel is a satisfying one.
The plot of Everything Under meanders between Gretel’s present and episodes in her past, with particular focus upon the period in which her mother took in a young runaway named Margot, disguised as a boy named Marcus, and subsequently left her. Of all the characters here, I found Margot by far the most interesting; there was something quite unusual about her, and the way in which she interacted with the world around her. The narrative is not a linear one, and episodes from Gretel’s past are often a little muddled in the order in which they occurred. There is an element of magical realism here, in that something which Gretel and Sarah name ‘The Bonak’ lurks in the water of their canal, stealing things away.
I found the opening paragraph of the novel utterly beguiling. Johnson writes: ‘The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia… We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them… 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.’ From the start of Everything Under, there is a dark volatility to the prose. For instance, ‘You are too old to beat anything out of. The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.’
The novel’s prose never sugarcoats anything; rather, the murky aspects of Gretel’s past and present, as well as descriptions of the landscape, come to the fore: ‘She crawled as far as she could into the bush. There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg’, for instance. I did enjoy Johnson’s writing style, but given what I had heard of Fen, I must admit that I was expecting her language to be more poetic, and the sense of place to be rather more present at the story’s outset. It does strengthen dramatically as the novel goes on, however, and I enjoyed the way in which Oxfordshire and the waterways almost became characters in their own right. I did feel the structure of the novel was effective, with relatively short chapters collected under titles like ‘The River’ and ‘The Cottage’, which are repeated throughout.
My personal preference was for those passages which related to the rooting of the landscape, and in which I was learning about the Whiting family dynamics, rather than those in which Gretel was discussing herself. Some paragraphs were particularly trenchant, such as this one: ‘What went missing in the night: themed 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, the rows of fish from the fishermen’s camp, silver hooks, the neighbourhood cats and everything they had – in their turn – hunted and eaten: mice, blind fumbling moles, broken-winged birds.’
Exploring themes of self and identity, as well as the ways in which we interact with others, there is a lot to admire in Everything Under. The use of the present tense, and the continual addressing to ‘you’, the protagonist’s mother, gives a sense of urgency to the whole. There are certainly some interesting and thought-provoking turns of phrase and ideas sprinkled through the novel, and overall, it feels as though Johnson is a shrewd and perceptive author, really getting to the core of her characters. Everything Under is far more involved with character than plot, and the building of these characters has been handled well. In places, however, the plot feels a little thin on the ground, and the parallels between Everything Under and Oedipus Rex were far too obvious. There seemed, at points, to be only a single, frayed thread holding everything together.