“It is hard, even now, to know where to start. For your memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles, drawing in and then receding”
Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, is described on the Penguin website thus:
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.
It almost sounds like this is a thriller. It’s not. But you do – rightly – get the impression that there is a mystery to solve/uncover.
There is that as we and Gretel try to follow the breadcrumbs of her past to make sense of her estrangement from her mother, and understand who Marcus was and why he has been forgotten.
The book divides into four strands written in a mix of first, second and third person which interweave to tell the tale – a loose reimagining of a classical myth (one which many reviews of the books seem happy to identify, though that seems too much of a spoiler for me):-
The Cottage: – Gretel and Sarah re-united and trying to piece together the past through the additional haze of Alzheimer’s/ dementia or similar.
Sarah: – The mother’s story.
The Hunt: – Gretel’s search for Marcus and her mother.
The River: –Marcus/Margo’s story
This divide allows the story to be revealed slowly, like a leisurely meander down a waterway in a canal boat. I can see how this might frustrate some readers but for me it was addictively teasing and reigned me in more and more as each compartment in the story was opened just a crack further. I really found this book hard to put down (read in 2 days). Whilst there is some signposting of what’s to come, it mostly plays its card close to its chest and keeps the tension going whilst holding back on some of its surprises.
I loved Johnson’s use of classical myth, fairytale and folklore and the spectre of “the Bonak” – a kind of riverside bogeyman that haunted Gretel and her mother on the river and still haunts them. For me it encapsulated the unknown and the fear of facing your own history. And then there is the love. I was touched by Gretel’s enduring love for a mother who had abandoned her, and her desire to be loved again.
Everything Under is a book about loss and leaving, about fate, about longing and sexual identity, about the flow of words and water, about the fact “There are more beginnings than there are ends to contain them”.
These are things it is about. What it is, as a novel, is a thing of beauty.
I would be happy for this to win, now. The gauntlet has been thrown.
“I want to shout that you chose to leave me, no one made you do it, you cannot lie down behind your badly made decisions and call them fate or determinism or god. But sometimes I wonder if you are right and if all our choices are remnants of all the choices we made before. As if decisions were shards from the bombs of previous actions.”
Next Up: Sophie Mackintosh – The Water Cure