Verdict: Mesmerizing, heartbreaking, stunningly realized.
My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published by Vintage/ Jonathan Cape, July 12th 2018
Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.
A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.
Daisy Johnson’s debut novel turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, Everything Under is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that leaves you unsettled and unstrung.
I am so glad this book was longlisted for the Man Booker because I don’t think I would have read it otherwise and that would have been such a shame. This is for sure my favourite of the list so far and I really hope it’ll make the shortlist so that more people will read this stunning little book.
The plot is difficult to summarize and I find it even more difficult because I was spoiled in a pretty major way before even starting the book. It did not change my enjoyment of the story per se but I do think I would have liked to have been able to read it with less knowledge. This is loose re-telling of a Greek myth; if you don’t know which one yet I would urge you to go in blind. At its heart this is a book about family, lost and found. We follow different narrative strands that converged and inform each other: we follow Gretel in her cottage with her mother who she has just found again and who is struggling with dementia, we follow Gretel during the fateful winter her mother left her, Gretel also tells Marcus’ story, the boy who spent a few weeks with them before her mother disappeared. The story is told exquisitely in different perspectives, including my personal favourite: a really well-done second person narrative. These different perspectives and the wonderful way Daisy Johnson weaves her story were by far the strongest part of this book. Gretel’s voice is brilliantly done and I love the musings on identity and memory.
Daisy Johnson’s language is just stunning, she creates an atmosphere so mesmerizing it felt like coming up air whenever I needed to stop reading. Her sentences are stunning, both linguistically and with the imagery employed.
“Whatever is was that pressed through the calm, cold waters that winter, that wrapped itself around or dreams and left its clawed footprints in our heads. I want to tell you that it might never have been there if we hadn’t thought it up.“
Johnson draws on riddles and fairy-tale, of subcultures and gender studies, in a way that felt super satisfying to read. The juxtaposition of the fluidity of both the prose and Gretel’s memories with the rigidity of fate worked incredibly well for me.
While I think this is an absolutely stunning work of fiction which did many new and exciting things while being stylistically brilliant, I do think the last 20% were not quite as strong. Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text and it did detract from the brilliance a bit. Mind, I still will read whatever else she has written because this was just so exciting.
I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Vintage Publishing/ Jonathan Cape in exchange for an honest review.