Title: Everything Under
Author: Daisy Johnson
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Published: 12 July 2018
Content Warnings: incest, suicide, and death (explicit); dementia and animal death (moderate); addiction, adult/child relationship, and rape (minor)
I go back and forth on if this is a 4 star or 5 star book. On one hand, I absolutely loved it. I thought it was gripping and intriguing, and I had to keep turning the page. On the other hand, there were moments were I was wondering if what Johnson was doing narratively (because she’s doing something interesting that is an uncommon narrative style) missed the mark.
I’m going to try to summarize the book, but I may miss the mark because this book is complicated. Also, throughout this review, I will be spoiling the book, which I think is okay with this book because you can figure out close to the beginning the frame of the story; spoiling this book doesn’t take away from the story, discussion, ideas that are presented here either. The book is mainly told through the point of view of Gretel, a young woman who works as a lexicographer updating dictionary entries for words. She spends her days alone and to herself, to the point where she actually states “No one but the postman knew I was here. I was protective of my solitude. I gave it space the way others gave space to their religion or politics” (10). This is due to the fact that Gretel grew up in a canal boat with her mom, Sarah, in the Oxford river areas. They had created their own language, community, and even monster: the bonak. The Bonak represents what they are afraid of, and the bonak could be small fears or even a big one.
The novel goes back and forth between the present and the past, as Gretel is trying to find her mom who left her alone at 16. It also goes to the past of a boy, Marcus, who stayed with Gretel and Sarah for a month in the winter and Gretel’s memories keep coming back to this moment and a creature who was stalking them.
To get one thing out of the way, this is a retelling of Oedipus Rex the Greek tragedy of Oedipus killing his dad and having sex with his mom. The chapters for Everything Under are divided into 3 time periods/sections: “The Cottage,” which is present day adult Gretel who is living with her mom who has dementia/Alzheimer’s; “The Hunt” is the section of Gretel looking back at her past as she is trying to find her mom; “The River” is Margot/Marcus experience of their life before they left home and after. There is another section titled “Sarah,” again Gretel’s mom, but there are only 2 (maybe 3) chapters labelled that.
So, you may be wondering why did I write Margot/Marcus that way. Well, because you find out pretty soon in the book (and it’s also kind of obvious when you start reading Margot’s section) that Marcus, the runaway teenager that Gretel and Sarah took in, is Margot. (Sidenote: I’m going to go back and forth between using he/she/they pronouns for Marcus, as there are no clear indications of how Marcus themselves identify). She was adopted by her parents, Roger and Laura, who decide not to tell her that she was adopted. Margot doesn’t have the easiest childhood as she pretty much spends her time alone, the limp they have doesn’t help this, but soon a next door neighbor, Fiona, becomes an important person to Margot and her parents. Fiona is a transgender woman and also a psychic. She tells Margot that Margot will grow up to kill her dad and have sex with her mom, just like the seers told Oedipus’ parents. Margot decides to leave in the middle of the night at 16.
From here, Marcus wanders the canal and finds a community before having to leave again, then finding Gretel and Margot. It’s funny because even though I said I’m going to spoil the book and the fact that you can probably figure out that Margot/Marcus is the Oedipus character, I’m still tiptoeing around the fact that Marcus kills his dad (another canal boat person) and has sex with his mom (Sarah).
As stated previously, the way Gretel grew up was very different from most people. There are many statements made throughout the book about how river people are different: “They have their own communities down there, their own rules. They don’t call the police or child services when something goes wrong. They have their own authority. It’s a different world” (85). Also this one: “We don’t call the fire engines or the ambulances. It’s always been that way. They don’t know anything about us and we know all we need to about them. But what happens when something goes wrong? We look after it, she replied” (194). I’ve heard similar things said in the real world about those who decide to live on boats (whether canal or another kind) as well. Gretel grew up with a community of her and her mom, but now looking back as an adult she sees that this did not set her up well, as she is a stranger to those around her, an alien. This quote from Gretel sums it up well and it’s probably my favorite from the book: “If – in any sense -language determined how we thought then I could never have been any other way than the way I am. And the language I grew up speaking was one no one else spoke. So I was always going to be isolated, lonely, uncomfortable in the presence of others. It was in my language. It was in the language you gave me” (136).
There are many ideas that Johnson brings up in this book. The obvious ones are the debate between fate and free will, gender fluidity, and fractured family relationships. There are also the ideas of monsters and what constitutes the monsters or something monstrous, along with the idea of language and communication (which is being tied to the debate between free will and fate). But something Gretel brings up quite a lot during her present day and past self is this idea of memory and how are memories are formed: “I’ve been thinking about the trace of our memories, whether the trace stays the same or changes as we rewrite them over time. If they are stable as houses and cliffs or decay fast and are replaced, overlaid. Everything we remember is passed down, thought over, is never the way that it was in reality” (8). This is stated in the first chapter and then we are brought into the story and I think at the end this is the point, is trying to figure out what was true and what isn’t true and what is past and what is present.
I know this review was rambling and kind of all over the place but so was this book. I definitely, definitely recommend it because one, it is a great story with lush and gorgeous language, and two because I still need to talk about this book with someone.
Happy Reading Darlings