Man Booker Review 2018: Everything Under

10th September 2018

Everything Under, Daisy Johnson

Jonathan Cape, London 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

An interest in the past, and the ability to form meaning through language might be said to be two key factors distinguishing us as human. Both ideas form part of the gravitational attraction of Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, Everything Under, which takes us down into Greek mythology and German fairytale to explore what makes us who we are.

Early in the novel, its narrator, Gretel, cautions “there are more beginnings than there are endings to contain them”, offering us an insight that signals how carefully we might be required to read this novel which at times threatens to fall into its own narrative disarray. Johnson is a great lover of the subordinate clause, breaking sentences so often it makes the story stagger. Set largely on the River Isis in Oxfordshire, the novel is flooded with watery metaphors. Here is writing that takes us somewhere where it is hard to breathe, haunted by the possibility of the fatal emotional undertows that threaten to disrupt (or confirm) who we might be.

As a child, Gretel lived on a houseboat with her mother, Sarah. But as in all good fairytales, the mother disappears, and at the beginning of the novel, Gretel hasn’t seen her for 16 years. Gretel’s search for her mother, in morgues, dreams, boatyards, other people’s lives, her own memories, dredges the darkest waters of her imagination in order to enable her to make the rite of passage that will mark her as adult. So much for the fairytale element, almost jarringly scored by Gretel’s name which makes most sense when it transmutes into Regretel.

In terms of myth, the novel is a broad reworking of the Oedipus story. Here Oedipus is re-imagined in the gender-fluid body of Marcus/Margot, one of the many characters Sarah draws into their life on the river. Gradually it becomes clear that Gretel’s search for her mother is also a search for a missing child, figured through the story of Marcus, but is really also a search for herself. In Everything Under everything is marked by loss, sex and death. In the myth of Oedipus there are two recurrent kinds of killing: people either kill their blood relations, or they kill monsters. Johnson’s novel suggests that the distinction is irrelevant.

The novel is haunted not just by the missing mother (missing in terms of dementia as well as in real terms) but also and troublingly by the Bonak, a monster who lurks underwater threatening to capsize all foolish human hopes and steal happiness. According to the Urban Dictionary, a bonak is a stupid child. It’s possible, the story suggests, that what threatens us most is our own buried self, the child we cannot escape and will not acknowledge. Insight rises to the surface, but the waters close over it almost as quickly.

Johnson’s writing has been compared favourably to Angela Carter’s and Ali Smith’s for its magical realism and its bawdy irreverence. For my money, Everything Under lacks the eloquence and elegance of Carter and the technical chutzpah of Smith. However, although the murky waters of the writing did occasionally threaten to submerge the story, Johnson’s praise of the mutability of language offers to rescue it. There is a great deal of wit and an inventive playfulness with which she writes. In the end, she does pull the story up out of the watery depths, painstakingly bringing to the surface those things we might wish to have kept buried, to say something true and interesting about fate, about identity and about relationships.

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