Book Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

I wanted to love Everything Under by Daisy Johnson more than I did. Purchasing it from Shakespeare and Company ready for my Oh Comely book club, it was a romanticised purchase that I was hoping would lead to a new-favourite-book love affair. This was exacerbated when a few weeks later it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize Longlist. Of course, like with any high expectations, Everything Under did fall short.

It’s important to premise by pointing out my severe ignorance in mythology. Aside from a few brief popular culture references in TV shows like The Simpsons, I know practically nothing. Therefore, Everything Under’s reference to the myth of Sophocles and Oedipus, doomed to kill his father and sleep with his mother, was lost on me. Reading reviews with hindsight after finishing it, I can see how this would be a charming element of the books narrative. Everything Under is told by narrator Gretel, who spent her childhood with her mother Sarah living on a riverboat. An overarching narrative follows Gretel searching for her missing mother, Sarah, sixteen years after she abandoned her. This search is made more difficult, and more urgent, by Sarah’s developing dementia. The book is separated into three timelines, which although confusing at times is perhaps necessary for such a complex set of stories and characters.

While the character development is well executed, gradually giving the reader drops of the character’s flaws, charms and oddities, I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. I can ‘like’ a flawed, even cruel, character (arguably what Sarah is), so this wasn’t the reason. Despite a gradual introduction into the complexities of these key figures, I found little reason to want to know more about them. An exception to this is Margot, later called Marcus, a gender-fluid young boy who lives with Sarah and Gretel. Gender fluidity is a central theme Everything Under, with another key character, clairvoyant Fiona, the essential clue for reuniting Sarah and Gretel. Daisy Johnson eloquently articulates Marcus and Fiona’s genders – she depicts this aspect of their characters as a side point to everything else they have to offer readers, rather than the often clumsy absorption other writings have produced.

What author Daisy Johnson does succeed flawlessly in is imagery. While dabbling into magical realism (a monster called the Bonak, or “canal thief”, follows Gretel throughout the book) a sense of relatable reality is maintained through Johnson’s stunning descriptions of nature. Perhaps it could even be said that the whole book is centred around nature, both in the physical land and River Isis in modern-day Oxfordshire which they live on, and the nature of their flawed mother-daughter relationship.

Likewise, the beauty of language is consistently emphasised throughout Everything Under. Sarah and Gretel create a new language that only the two of them know: ‘sheesh’ time is time Sarah needs alone, ‘duvduv’ is things that are cosy or comforting, ‘harpiedoodle’ is an inoffensive alternative to a curse word. It is even alluded to that the ‘Bonak’ is not a literal physical being (despite seemingly being physically seen and described  by many) but a personification of fears and darkness.

Under is a modern retelling of Greek mythology. Swirling together magical realism, the beauty of nature, gender-fluidity, and the fraught relationship of a mother and child, Daisy Johnson creates a world that leaves a mark on the reader long after finishing it. Even readers who can’t tell their Oedipus from their Poseidon.

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