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Everything Under

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The dictionary doesn’t contain every word. Gretel, a lexicographer by trade, knows this better than most. She grew up on a houseboat with her mother, wandering the canals of Oxford and speaking a private language of their own invention. Her mother disappeared when Gretel was a teen, abandoning her to foster care, and Gretel has tried to move on, spending her days updating dictionary entries.

One phone call from her mother is all it takes for the past to come rushing back. To find her, Gretel will have to recover buried memories of her final, fateful winter on the canals. A runaway boy had found community and shelter with them, and all three were haunted by their past and stalked by an ominous creature lurking in the canal: the bonak. Everything and nothing at once, the bonak was Gretel’s name for the thing she feared most. And now that she’s searching for her mother, she’ll have to face it.

264 pages, Hardcover

First published July 12, 2018

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About the author

Daisy Johnson

22 books1,124 followers
The author of Sisters (2020) Everything Under (2018) and Fen (2016).

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Everything Under, her debut novel.

Winner of the Edgehill prize for Fen.

She has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and the New Angle Award for East Anglian writing. She was the winner of the Edge Hill award for a collection of short stories and the AM Heath Prize.

Reviews for Fen:

"Within these magical, ingenious stories lies all of the angst, horror and beauty of adolescence. A brilliant achievement." (Evie Wyld)

"There is big, dangerous vitality herein - this book marks the emergence of a great, stomping, wall-knocking talent" (Kevin Barry)

"Reading the stories brought the sense of being trapped in a room, slowly, but very surely, filling up with water. You think: this can't be happening. Meanwhile, hold your breath against the certainty it surely is. " Cynan Jones

"I've been working my way slowly through Fen and not wanting it to end - Daisy marries realism to the uncanny so well that the strangest turnings ring as truth. The echoes between stories give the collection a wonderfully satisfying cohesion, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I cannot wait to see what she does next." (Sara Taylor, author of The Shore)


Reviews for Everything Under:

"Everything Under grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let me go. To read Daisy Johnson is to have that rare feeling of meeting an author you’ll read for the rest of your life." (Evie Wyld)

"Surprising, gorgeously written, and profoundly unsettling, this genderfluid retelling of Oedipus Rex will sink into your bones and stay there." (Carmen Maria Machado)

"Daisy Johnson is a genius." (Jeff VanderMeer)

"Hypnotic, disquieting and thrilling. A concoction of folklore, identity and belonging which sinks its fangs into the heart of you." (Irenosen Okojie)

"Everything Under seeped through to my bones. Reaching new depths hinted at in Fen, language and landscape turn strange, full of creeping horror and beauty. It is precise in its terror, and its tenderness. An ancient myth masterfully remade for our uncertain times. " (Kiran Millwood Hargrave)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,800 reviews
Profile Image for Ova - Excuse My Reading.
470 reviews349 followers
September 3, 2018
Full review here
This book will win the Man Booker prize. I know it. (I will blame the jury if it doesn't)

I am in shock, and awe. I am disgusted by some parts of this book but I am also equally blown away. I have never read something like this before.

I dived into this book after reading the truly vague blurb, and thought `oh boy, this will be either a favourite or a disaster!`. I am Turkish, not a native English speaker and of some heavily metaphorical books that is aimed to crack the reader's skull just doesn't work for me. So I had my doubts about this one but I am extremely pleased to say that it's turned out to be an absolute reading joy. So guys, first thing first: If I get this book with my second hand English, you have no right to say, "Oh I just don't get it" -I think I am making it pretty clear that I am officially a fan of this book-

The blurb is vague and it is for a reason. This book puzzled me for a long time, until 40% of the book I was a bit confused about who was who, and what was really going on. Once the pieces get connected I was transfixed, it was like seeing an avalanche coming on to me but I was so paralysed I couldn't move, I couldn't stop reading. I knew it'd hit me. I knew it was going to be a slap to my face. And it was but I enjoyed every moment of it. What happens in this book can be told in a paragraph and if I was told, I would have said 'Ewww' and refuse to read the book. The way it is told is so otherworldly, so dreamy, so damn good. It is in a way like Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter- but better storytelling then Winterson and less bizarre than Carter.

This is a re-telling or re-imagining of something (not gonna say, not gonna spoil) but I am taken away with this writing.

Daisy Johnson could be our new Angela Carter dear readers. From now on I will read everything she writes. Even a shopping list.

5 full, bold stars. Just amazing.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jonathan Cape for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
670 reviews1,025 followers
June 6, 2019
"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."

3.5 ⭐️

I enjoyed this. It was certainly different, it took me a while to get into and understand what was happening, but once I did I found this to be a wonderfully descriptive and engrossing read.

The story is a retelling of the Oedipus myth from Greek mythology and is split into 3 timelines/POVs.

We follow Gretel in chapters named The Cottage where she lives with her elderly mother who is suffering from dementia. Her relationship with her mother has always been a turbulent one, full of secrets, her mother Sarah's memory troubles do nothing to ease their time together.

Separately, we follow Gretel in chapters named The Hunt when she is looking for her mother,who she's hasn't seen in 16 years since she was left by her. Gretel is also looking for a young lad named Marcus, who came to live with them briefly while they were staying on a canal boat along the river in Oxford. She meets his parents, and learns more about his background and secret life.

Finally the chapters named The River are set when Gretel was a teen, living with her mother on the canal and meeting Marcus for the first time.

This book is full of metaphors and descriptions, the writing submerges you into the lives of these characters even as we watch the train wreck we know is coming.

"The past is not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor."

The only part I didn't understand If anyone else who has read the book can fill me in I would be grateful.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes symbolism and retellings of Greek myths.

"Anything can be lost if you try hard enough."

***********************************

Ordered this from the library after spotting it in the book store and forbidding myself from buying it. I'm looking forward this to one :)
Profile Image for Celeste Ng.
Author 15 books85.6k followers
Read
August 8, 2018
Saturated in mythology and fairy tales, EVERYTHING UNDER is weird and wild and wonderfully unsettling. Daisy Johnson writes in a torrent of language as unrelenting and turbulent and dark as the river at the book’s heart; dive in for just a moment and you’ll emerge gasping and haunted.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
474 reviews574 followers
October 14, 2018
I'm sorry to say that I didn't get on with Everything Under. Like everyone else, I was delighted to hear that a 27-year-old writer had made the Booker shortlist with her debut novel - just the kind of shake-up that the prize needs. But even though I can acknowledge some of the ambition and invention in this book, I found it exasperating to read.

The story involves Gretel, a woman looking for her mother, Sarah, around the canals of Oxfordshire. When Gretel was a teenager, they lived alone on a houseboat, but Sarah abandoned her daughter, and she ended up in foster care. Sixteen years later, Gretel receives a short phone call from her mother and vows to find her. The search causes her to remember her childhood, the unusual vocabulary she and Sarah used, and a boy named Marcus who spent some time on their boat. It also brings back terrifying memories of the Bonak, a strange creature that haunted their dreams.

I know that Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth, and that fact somehow makes it worthy of awards recognition, but it's all so frustratingly vague. The constantly shifting timeline doesn't help things, it only serves to disrupt the flow of the narrative. And maybe the opacity of the plot is meant to reflect the confusion surrounding Gretel's memories and Sarah's dementia, but it doesn't make an entertaining story. Also, one major plot twist seemed implausible to me:

I'm clearly in the minority. The praise for this book has been effusive and Daisy Johnson has been singled out as an exciting new talent. I wouldn't rule out reading any of her future novels, but this one just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,445 reviews2,180 followers
January 23, 2020
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018
This text is the reworking of a Greek tragedy (which one? ), a horror/ghost story, and a hall of mirrors - Daisy Johnson knows how to write exciting experimental fiction! As the novel progresses, the mythological source becomes clear, but she twists and turns the story and introduces a whole cabinet of doppelgängers, mirror images, and shape-shifting ghosts. Recurring topics are the nature of fear and the question whether there is something like destiny - and have I mentioned that the way she employs the natural surroundings of a river to illustrate and strengthen her story is simply fantastic?

Our protagonist is Gretel who grew up on a houseboat with her eccentric mother, Sarah, who ultimately abandoned her when she was 16. At 32, Gretel works as a lexicographer and is constantly reminded of the words her mother used to invent, of the secret language they both shared - finally, she is prompted to put into action what she has been thinking about for a long time: Gretel sets out to search for her mother.

In this story, the characters are not only haunted by the past they can't forget, they also meet monsters that might be real or willed into being, people change their family and their gender, family secrets are unearthed, there are riddles over riddles, and people struggle with destinies they might or might not have - or is it their obsessions? The story also shifts between time frames and narrative strands, and the reader has to pay close attention to follow what is going on. Tipp: You should also watch out for oranges, eggs and the theme of blindness! :-)

And there is always the river, haunting, magical, and menacing - is this river the Styx? What spirit is Otto, the dog who looks like an otter and who is with Gretel during her search (and only during her search)? This novel is so full of ideas, it is edgy and weird, and it celebrates language, leading Gretel (of course her name's a Hansel and Gretel reference) through her journey with "words like breadcrumbs".

I could now complain about one minor thing, but only in this spoiler , but this seems like a minor quandry. It's also true that I am disappointed that this year's Booker longlist lacks geographical diversity and political topicality, but this is the kind of book I want to discover on a Booker list. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,094 reviews3,831 followers
November 25, 2021
Betwixt the rivers

This bewitching story, full of watery allusions and illusions, and echoing legends of old, took me back to “Mespots”. That’s an area of central Oxford criss-crossed by the Cherwell and its tributaries, and near to the Thames, Isis, and the Oxford Canal. It’s where this is set - and where Lyra Belacqua explored Oxford’s dark waterways in His Dark Materials. Shadows of the river Styx, the Sphynx, Scylla and Charybdis, Shakespeare, and Hansel and Gretel lurk in “the tangle of bank and water and forest.”, where waters meet. There’s a constant sense of something primordial, mythic, and possibly evil.


Image: Floods at Mesopotamia, 1904 (Source)

There are more beginnings than there are endings to contain them.
Three meandering, intersecting tributaries carry the story, with varying current and clarity: The Cottage (set in the present, told by Gretel to her mother, Sarah), The Hunt (shortly before the present, told by Gretel), and The River (the backstory of all the main characters, told by an omniscient narrator).

Fate, flow, and fluidity

Are we propelled inexorably downstream by fate, or do we have the freedom to change course? Perhaps free will is an illusion that merely lets us take a slightly different route to the same ocean. It’s a question at the heart of religions, myths, fairytales, physics, and the occult, and it’s on the minds of the characters here, and affects how much faith they put in prophesy.


Image: “Boy of Hope” by Erik Johansson (Source)

The liquidity of the river and canal seeps into people, making identities fluid too: new families, roles, relationships, and genders.

Even when you recognise the specific Greek myth that swirls through this book, the elliptical storytelling keeps it pleasingly cloudy.
Nothing she predicted was without consequence.

Lost and found

What’s the worst that could happen? Sometimes that’s a helpful way to make difficult decisions and situations seem more manageable. But what if the unthinkable is probable, or has already happened - the thing you’re most afraid of (the Bonak)? Being abandoned by your only parent when you’re still a child, or a parent losing their child. Having sight or language slip away. But for every loss, there is a counterbalancing find or foundling. Ebb and flow, light and dark, male and female, adult and child, good and bad, till it all blurs in a whirlpool, making it hard to discern real from imaginary, benign from malign. Does naming fears make them more real or easier to discuss and allay?


Image: The Bonak? It’s actually a sculpture by Simon Gudgeon, optimistically called “Belisama” (Source)

Gretel wants to discover why her mother abandoned her half a lifetime ago. Her quest is hampered by unreliable memories, dreams and nightmares, secrets, people who are not as they seem, and others who struggle for words. For the reader, at one further remove, piecing it together is a bit like mudlarking: lots of pretty fragments, but other items suggesting darker deeds and forces.

Words

Our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds.

Words and meanings are a constant, slippery undercurrent. Gretel grew up peppering English with a secret vocabulary coined by Sarah: it cleaved her to her mother and from other people. They were “outside everything”.

Now, the flow is reversed: Gretel is a lexicographer, codifying standard English, while Sarah’s dementia means her vocabulary is ebbing away.
I watch the words leaving you.

Rating

I was captivated by the first half, but then it lost its sparkle. I’m not sure if the book itself became a little stagnant, or I did (because I didn’t have time to pick it up again for nearly a fortnight). Certainly, I was never quite convinced at how readily one character switched identity based on a casual misunderstanding; the fact it was integral to the plot made it increasingly irksome. Also, I would have liked rather more of Gretel and Sarah’s secret vocabulary woven into the story (or to omit that stream); I tried to ignore the implausibility of uneducated Gretel having a job as a lexicographer.

Nevertheless, it’s an impressive first novel whose themes and style reminded me of Jeanette Winterson, while being different enough to be original.

Quotes

• “Stars, the smears of luminous gas joined to one another with their own secret, internal locking of gravity.”

• “For you, memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles.”

• “The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.”

• “Forgetting is, I think, a form of protection.”

• “He was very aware of the shape of spaces.”

• “The water has a way of making anything that was clear murky.”

• “River people aren’t like other people.”

• “The places we are born come back to us.”

• “As if part of her brain were hollow like sea caves and occasionally became full with knowledge that had not been there before.”

Johnson's short stories

Shortly after this novel, I read Johnson's earlier collection of short stories, Fen. It has many similarities of setting, theme, and language, and none of the minor flaws and irritations I found with this. Read my review HERE.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
732 reviews5,000 followers
September 20, 2021
The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.

Any decisions we make are only mirages,’ the narrator of Daisy Johnson’s first novel, Everything Under, is told by her mother, ‘ghosts to convince us of free will.Everything Under is a blissfully accomplished novel that follows the intertwined narratives of people who are trying to escape from their personal history as much as they are trying to uncover and understand their history. The three principal character lead lives that are a reaction to their respective pasts, simultaneously resisting and enabling the notion that fate is something ‘coded into us from the moment we are born’. While not as fantastical as the wildly imaginative stories in Fen--Johnson's debut collection--Everything Under maintains the ineffable terror and tension of fairy tales through a near-elusive narrative approach that teases the reader forward as if hunting them. Through playful homages and modern updates on several traditional tales, a non-linear story that coils through the various timelines like a serpent trapping its prey, and an effortless prose that illuminates the whole tale, Everything Under is a success that makes up for its shortcomings.

Gretel is attempting to track down her mother, Sarah, who abandoned her as a teen. Seeking her mother, however, also means dredging up painful memories. Her memories are often just out of the grasp from clear recall, many of which have been suppressed as a method of escaping them. However, she cannot escape and these memories start crawling back as if from the grave and force her to confront them.
I'd always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this or that.
Growing up amidst the secluded society of folks living along the river in Southern England (it is frequently mentioned that the river folk don’t trust police and “take care” of issues themselves, an ominous phrase that works as another brick in the untamed tone which permeates the novel), her childhood was tinged with wildness and, while she is haunted by their past, she is living a present deeply rooted in her personal history. Having an invented language she spoke with her mother--a major joy in the novel are the words like duvduv (best translated as anything comforting), sheesh time (being alone), or effing (the sound the river makes as if moves) being used with the prose understood by the reader as a method of pulling you into the logic of the novel--and growing up with the encyclopedia as her primary reading material, it seems fitting that Gretel now works as a lexicographer. However, try as she might to neatly capture reality in words, her own reality escapes her, particularly the one attached to the most fearsome word from her childhood: the deadly bonak which stalked them and the mysterious stranger they befriended one fateful winter.

Language and its fluidity are central to the heart of Everything Under. While this could have--and preferably should have--been more thoroughly mined in the novel, the way it functions in conjunction with the nuances of the novel from gender themes narratorial approach are rather effective. The novel builds in tension by fluidly sashaying across various timelines and perspectives in an episodic fashion. Events are scattered but in a way that best inform the flow of events ‘as if decisions were shards from the bombs of our previous actions’. Major chapter headings such as “The Cottage” (the novel’s present), “The River” and “The Hunt” work as signposts to keep the reader from becoming unmoored and these narratives spiral together in a way that makes them greater than the sum of their parts by emphasizing an orchestrated rising/falling action with each timeline harmonizing effectively with the others. The Eight “parts” of the novel are thematically contained and controlled in a way that feels as if the novel were a mini-series with episode breaks. Perhaps the appeal of mini-series narratives are spilling into fiction (or vice versa), but it creates a very modern storytelling effect. This is particularly interesting given the traditional stories being retold or nodded to within the novel and the stylization makes the updates all the more engrossing.

Gender, like language, is a malleable construct explored in the novel as well and best exemplified in the characters of Fiona and Margot/Marcus. Like Gretel, Haunted by a fateful, prophetic vision from Fiona, Marcus has fled their past but finds that no matter how they try to escape, their anchor to fate catches up with them. Beginning life as a child found down by the river and adopted by parent she never knew were not her own, Margot spends much of the novel trying to find an identity. ‘She wanted to find a body and movement that suited her. But she did not wear any of them well.’ Marot becomes Marcus, yet still retains an unnerved lack of bearings. Johnson uses the gender fluidity for great purpose, both as a way to execute the surprises of plot but also to look at the way gender can be uncertain. The gender changes are Marcus’ way to escape, but also become the avenue to walk directly into Fiona’s prophecy.

The novel mostly turns its attention to questions of fate vs free will and examines how our decisions propell us on a trajectory towards our future selves. If the trajectory can be altered is the real question, and if we spend our lives running from our past does it mean that the past is, like a hunting dog, chasing us right into its trap? This is much like the old tale "The Appointment in Samarra" where a merchant, so frightened by seeing Death gesturing to him in a marketplace in Baghdad, flees to hide in the town of Samarra. Death, it is revealed, was just as shocked to see the merchant since he had an appointment with the merchant that night in Samarra.

Some run, like Marcus and the merchant, yet some--like Sarah--try to kill the past. The Bonak, a mysterious creature killing animals and people along the river, may or may not have been created out of Sarah’s fear and escape from her past. In trying to atone for what she cannot bear to remember, she may have created a monster that may or may not exist. Near the end of the novel it is mentioned that she has been hunting it for so long she’d forgotten she wanted to kill it and why--a sad fate derived out of the rebellion against fate. Marcus, as well, may have created the “canal thief” from their own anxieties, and while it is implied they are running from the same monster, both of them feel they are being the ones singled out by it. All leading to a well-orchestrated conclusion.

If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we can find our way back.

Johnson is most engrossing when discussing how memories attach themselves like burrs to places and people. The land and people of the ‘long-lost trailing river--a spine against the backbone of the country’ are brought to life through some of the strongest prose in the novel and retain a sense of wilderness through eerie metaphors that form a fractious yet comforting wasteland (not unlike the mother, Sarah). It makes one reflect back on their own personal history and how often location is embedded in the aesthetic of memory. People are also a way we stick our memories to emotional context. For Gretel, the return to the past is more about Sarah than the riverboat they lived on. Family lineage becomes another way to remain trapped in the aim of fate, with children continuing our legacy because ‘children are a map of genes’.

All of these elements combine to create a well-crafted update on traditional tales. While the narrative examines the way history reveals itself in the present, the novel itself is an examination of old stories and fairy tales can grow within a modern context. Hansel and Gretel is one of the several updates working as an undercurrent in the novel and as much more than simply breadcrumbs of memory leading the way home. The fairy tale begins with the children being abandoned in the woods by their parents, much like Gretel in the story--and the lost dog she brings with her and loses near the river--but also the ways other characters are abandoned in their own figurative wilderness. The primary update of a tale that drives the narrative is especially interesting to examine through the new lens of gender fluidity and fate. I won’t mention the name (and it’s disappointing how so much of the marketing material and blurbs give it away) as it's better to approach the novel without being told exactly what it is this book is a retelling, but the way Johnson plays with the narrative and characters is both refreshing and progressive while also revealing the cruelties of a world pre-ordained by fate.

Daisy Johnson has given us a wonderful novel with well-executed plotting and narrative and plenty of nuances to treat the mind. While the novel was extremely engaging and easy to get lost within, many of the philosophical inquires could have been far more elaborated on, particularly the way language figures into the book. Despite a few setbacks, the novel succeeds at satisfying it’s goals and was rightfully short-listed for the Man Booker Prize as a result. The prose is a thing to behold, and Johnsons current of words flows swift and true through a rich linguistic landscape that will both unnerve and welcome the reader. Everything Under is a successful update on old tales that manages to retain the timeless quality while still feeling very modern. Johnson is a very gifted writer and I very much look forward to reading more of her.

3.5/5

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bedside lamp, certain everything we've built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognize us but we will always recognize them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,251 reviews49 followers
October 1, 2018
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

I will start with an apology - I know that a few friends have finished this one in the last couple of days - and I have been deliberately avoiding reading your reviews until I finished it myself because otherwise I would probably feel there is nothing fresh to say, and this really is a vibrant first novel from a very talented young writer, which thoroughly merits its inclusion on the longlist and could be a potential winner.

On the face of it I should hate this book, as I normally struggle to relate to stories with supernatural elements, but Johnson writes so well and her storytelling skills are such that I was still gripped and frequently surprised. To some extent the basis in Greek myth and folk tales dictates some of the surreal elements, particularly the prophesy and fate parts, but Johnson writes very well about language and landscapes, especially rivers and canals, and her characters are vividly realised.

I won't even attempt to describe the plot - though this book would almost certainly reward multiple readings I wouldn't want to spoil - this really is a book that you should read for yourselves. I will certainly be seeking out a copy of Fen once the Booker longlist is out of the way.

I have now read those reviews (by Meike, Neil, Gumble's Yard and Jonathan). All four are wonderfully insightful and detailed and deserve more recognition than this one - I might not have dared to write anything if I'd read them earlier...
Profile Image for Hannah.
583 reviews1,041 followers
December 19, 2018
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 our 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, on 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.

You can find this review and other thoughts on books on my blog.
Profile Image for Britta Böhler.
Author 8 books1,831 followers
January 31, 2019
The writing is beautiful (despite some silly statements like "Old people are a species of their own" that are scattered throughout the book), and atmospheric. But unfortunately, the story didnt work for me at all.
2*
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,714 reviews1,144 followers
November 22, 2018
Now deservedly shortlisted, although I don't want to alter my original review and spoil the alliteration.

A literary novel of the liminal, language, leaving and legend, longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize.

The river cut into the land. It was no good. She walked and walked until she slept. She saw the people on passing or moored boats looking at her and understood she did not look like a boy. She looked like something in between, uncertain, only half made.


This is firstly a book of the liminal.

Transitions and fluidity of gender, of family relationships and family status recur frequently, with the author herself switching between first, second and third person narrative, all in Gretel’s voice.

And reminding me of the fellow longlisted Warlight) boundaries are vital to this book. The boundary between land and water: the author’s previous and debut book (a short story collection) Fen was set in that eponymous district where water becomes land and land can lie below water; this book is set on a river and in the world of canals (again the parallels with Warlight are strong) and on the strips of land alongside them. The boundary between the surface and the deep and the dangers that lie under the water. Boundaries between communities - the canal and river folk have their own sense of community and self-sufficiency and clearly are carefully maintain their distance from the world, in a recurring theme we are told they don’t call the police or child services. And even the boundary that Sarah creates for her and Gretel through their shared childhood language,

I understood suddenly what you had done by creating your own language and teaching it to me. We were aliens. We were like the last people on earth. 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.


Language is then the second theme.

Marcus is first attracted to Sarah and Gretel by their shared language: They had cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically. They were a species all their own. He wanted to be like them, he wanted to be them.

Margot as a child finds words difficult Those words on the page, swimming in and out of one another. She would not read, told them the words were ants which crawled, would not hold still.. By contrast Gretel loved words as a child, tries to teach Marcus Scrabble and later she becomes a Lexiographer.

In Sarah’s early dementia we are told that her inventiveness with language begins to leave her a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out and later The next day I watch the words leaving you. The pronouns are slippery and won’t stay still; objects go first so that you only point or shout until I bring what you want. Names are long gone.

Leaving is another themes which dominates the story.

Sarah leaves Gretel and the older Gretel is ever concerned she will leave again and wants to understand Marcus’s leaving. Fiona leaves her family and then Margot’s family, after influencing Margot to leave. It also features as as a euphemism for another underlying threat: When Gretel was a child, she said, she wouldn’t talk about death so we called it leaving. And I think it is no accident the word Gretel is occupied with as the book begins:

For a living I updated dictionary entries. I had been working on break all week. There were index cards spread across the table and some on the floor. The word was tricky and defied simple definition. These were the ones I liked best. They were the same as an earworm, a song that became stuck in your head.”


And of course this is a book of legend.

Primarily it is a fantastic reworking of a Greek myth, but rather than say “Circe” or Pat Barker’s upcoming “The Silence of the Girls”, both of which renarrate a myth from the viewpoint of a female character, or Shamsie’s “Home Fire” which uses the very detailed narrative of the myth but set in today’s world, here the myth is a starting point for a complex tale.

The Greek myth is and overlaid with Biblical allusion (Margot contemplates, unknowingly accurately, Moses as a name), fairy tale (Gretel and the recurring mentions of breadcrumbs) and even a familiar modern children’s tale, with a one word but I think very relevant mention of Julia Donaldson’s classic Gruffalo.

But added to all of this is invented legend. The character of the Canal Thief reminded me somewhat of The Essex Serpent, and in Sarah and Gretel’s language becomes or expands into the Bonak There were more Bonak in the water than could be counted: bodies whose ghosts might catch on the anchor and decide to stay, trunks of trees big enough to sweep the boat away, the canal thief who rose out of the rip-tide tunnels and hesitated.

The Bonak increasingly dominates their lives and its true meaning and significance becomes, at least to me, more obscure at the same time the parallels with the Greek Myth become clearer to the reader (at the same time the truth about the different characters emerges to Gretel). As if all along Bonak didn’t mean what we were afraid of, what was in the water, but watch out; this is what is coming down the river

Really a wonderful book and one which I can only congratulate the the Booker judges for longlisting. My review only scratches the surface of the novel (I could write more for example about the mythological parallels or the concept of destiny and whether one can avoid it).

My thanks to Random House for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews2,889 followers
January 25, 2020
I'll start by confessing that the only two highly esteemed British female writers I've never been able to connect with are Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter (you can add Fay Weldon too though her reputation has declined). I've only read one novel by these three authors but what they had in common was a somewhat bludgeoning emphasis on sexual politics. Daisy Johnson too here uses this as her principle viewfinder.

She was twenty-seven when she wrote this and yet like Evie Wyld, another young female writer, does in her novels she's created a world her grandmother could live in - Oxford, cottages, rivers, boats. Nothing wrong with this but I find it a little odd that someone who has experiences no other writer in history has access to chooses to ignore them. One of Zadie Smith's qualities as a writer is the insight she provides into the world we currently live in. Same could be said of Ali Smith who is old enough to be Daisy Johnson's grandmother.

Daisy Johnson has instead turned to Greek tragedy for inspiration. We get a retelling of the Oedipus myth except from a female perspective with some cross dressing thrown in to give a modern (and to me rather vapid) feel. To be honest, I often felt the Oedipus element led this narrative astray and it might have been a much better novel without it. The pivotal moments of the myth all seemed awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and the murder of the father almost seemed like an incidental act. Because this essentially is a novel about the mother/daughter relationship and fathers are peripheral.

Johnson writes really well, especially about the natural world when her landscapes are always gloriously organic and bristling with decay. But it's her penchant for melodramatic detail which began grating on my nerves. It felt like she still has to weed out some of adolescent strains in her imagination in order to achieve greater artistic mastery. Some examples - At one point the daughter sets fire to her mother's car. It felt like Johnson was imagining what a great scene it would make in a Hollywood movie. I get it that it might be justified as the daughter wanting to prevent her mother from fleeing her again. Except cars had played no part in the novel. Her mother lives on boats. It's like she gave her a car simply so she could shoehorn this scene in. There's another scene where the mother decides to tell her daughter about the facts in life. This takes place in a restaurant when she produces a condom and inserts a knife into it. Or there's the fact that the only attempt the daughter makes to find her mother is to constantly ring up morgues. These details perhaps give the impression that this is a kind of black comedy. But it isn't; it's a rather pretentious novel with big philosophical themes and an ambitious three-tiered structure. The three-tiered structure was for the most part deftly handled but the philosophical themes - free will vs destiny, language forging identity, androgyny - were largely announced rather than developed.

This was nominated for the Booker. The Milkman ended up winning and rightly so because in terms of artistry it's so much more accomplished.
Profile Image for Pedro .
184 reviews376 followers
June 30, 2019
I’ve been intrigued by this book since it first came out. I can’t count the times I’ve held the hardback edition in bookshops. Something about the title and its weird and gorgeous cover really pulled me in to it all the time, and oh!, when I get intrigued by something there’s no way I’m not going to find out why.

So last week I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, so I bought myself a copy and ran home so I could start it.

First of all, I want to say I was totally gripped after the first page - which works like kind of an introduction. If you love good writing, there’s no way you’re not going to love that first paragraph; it works like some kind of a well thought literary bait and at the same time like an anchor. I think it worked even better for me as an anchor because it saved me quite a few times from being carried away by the current of weirdness and confusion about what was going on.

Yes, this book is weird and at first a bit confusing, but the author holds your hand all the time and with the help of that brilliant first paragraph you certainly will not get lost. Because of this, and maybe other reasons, I knew I was going to get “there”, and I did, and it was f*c{ing amazing.

Unforgettable.

“I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this and that. The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.”
Profile Image for Lee.
335 reviews8 followers
September 20, 2018
Now shorlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

"The places we are born come back.

Any decisions we make are only mirages, ghosts to convince us of free will."

It’s a big thing nowadays: authors funnelling contemporary stories through a mythological framework. To name a few examples in passing: Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire);Madeleine Miller (The Song of Achilles, Circe); Ali Smith (Girl Meets Boy, as part of the Canongate Myths series, which enlisted other luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt and Jeanette Winterson in modernising a series of familiar historical fables). Those contemporary retellings of Sophocles, Homer and Ovid emphatically establish the parallels reverberating through ‘the human tale’, put old, eternal truths in a modern context and lend at least a patina of enduring gloss. The paradoxical takeaway being that to suggest the mores of the age, and the apparently unique elements making up the modern world are merely surface variations of ultimately immutable destinies, which can be conflated to equate post-millennium lives with something much greater – foundational myths – delivers both a sense of a reassuring, inexorable fault-line and the harrowing possibility that we’re simply different players consigned to playing very old, ill-fated roles. Yes, we’re given a new wardrobe and allowed to wander ever-evolving scenery amidst contemporary architecture, distracted by interchangeable factors. But we are finally and inescapably beholden to the same old underpinning scenarios to which we must all inevitably succumb, fated to undergo unoriginal, unremarkable tribulations, running through the beats of our indistinct stories which have all been told before...

As framing devices, the bonuses to the author are obvious: what might be considered a slight tale is instantaneously, by announcing its basic homage to an ur-narrative that has endured for centuries, conferred with an esteem the text mightn’t otherwise possess.

Gretel, a lexicographer, searches for a mother, Sarah, who sired Gretel during a careening, alcoholic early-adulthood, and who may well be dead. The two shared their own argot (which could be deemed to represent the unique corollary shared by kin, or the ostracised) while living marginal existences as part of a community outside traditional civilian life, full of BFG-esque words like ‘harpiedoodle’ and ‘effing’. This rejection of common forms and the cultivation of a bespoke language doesn’t effect any kind of mother/daughter bond; rather, it cements their obsolescence from a world they have little interest in, and forces them together as the only two members of a fractious union (latterly even more so due to her mother's already ravening onset of Alzheimer's). Another word both share is more a concession to a looming spectre that lingers in the hinterlands between the real world and their own, something called the ‘Bonak’, (a largely unsuccessful device that feels a bit like a half-baked CGI nemesis) which by turns suggests itself as a demonic manifestation of calamitous misdeeds, a named shapelessness that embodies all kinds of dread (although it appears at times to be a phallic antagonist). It probably simply means: death, disintegration, irrevocable finality. But to Gretel her mother possesses the truest sense of who she still feels she is - so what of that sense of self once her mother can no longer access it?

There is much reference in Everything Under to unseen perils lurking just out of sight, including a canal thief which I rightly or wrongly assumed to be a hint at the murdered father reincarnate as something diffuse and menacing and hellbent on some kind of inchoate revenge. It’s the kind of mythic presence that pervades the lives of the canal-dwelling sub-culture. Gretel is eventually sped through a condensed introduction to adulthood on her 16th birthday (not actually her birthday; her mother has the dates wrong) via a restaurant and a dancefloor, and is then abandoned at the stables at which both lived, an insecure arrangement that had continued their off-the-map living.

"There were the years of trying to find you. At the weekends I’d catch the bus to places I thought you might have gone. Trawl around asking after you. I had the photo I have now and I’d show it to everyone I met. I’d say, She’s short, shorter than us; she’s got grey hair and grey eyes. It was hard not to see you everywhere. Out of the windows of moving buses, down supermarket aisles, at tables in cafes or pubs, in cars at traffic lights. I saw you walking or running, sitting, talking, laughing with your head tipped forward against your chest. I chased women down the street but they were never you. You had gone without a trace. You were a ghost in my brain, in my stomach. I began to wonder if you had ever really existed at all."

In other words: Gretel’s mother is in her absence becoming a creation whose non-appearance can only broaden her influence and potency. By pursuing her ghost, Gretel can’t escape an adolescence arrested at the moment of her abandonment.

Via this and two other interwoven plot strands the search for Sarah ensues, and the intricate connective tissue linking all the characters in the novel is unravelled and rebound. A character called Fiona, a cross-dressing man, grafts herself to a family in lieu of her own; said family contains within it the adopted Margot (the first child Sarah abandoned) and her adoptive parents, Roger and Laura. Gretel visits the latter pair, led there in her search for Sarah via Margot. Margot had suddenly left the family home many years earlier never to return, and Gretel’s arrival instils hope in the abandoned parents, that both Sarah and Margot, now Marcus (this is all a little easier to follow in the novel), are together somewhere, and that Gretel’s successful pursuit would lead to their own long-overdue reunion.

As a child, Fiona had fascinated Margot upon her sudden arrival as a new next-door neighbour, and Margot’stroublingly obsessive proclivity for the newcomer draws the lone transsexual into the family. Fiona is soon enjoying regular meals at the house as Margot follows her around; Roger and Laura are less enamoured of Fiona’s apparent mood-swings and occasional moments of reclusive apathy. But the child of the house defers to Fiona above anyone, and completely invests in her eccentric, unique character, seeing in her the allure of the fellow misfit. This includes accepting at face-value Fiona’s apparent powers as a seer, assuming that everything she says is inevitable.

Fiona, in fact, perceives the murder by Margot of her father; misapprehending this to mean that she will soon kill Roger, Fiona forces Margot to leave, and Margot, refusing to question this perception, does so. She then fulfils her portended destiny down by the canal, soon drawn towards and befriended by a blind barge-owner called Charlie, who just happens to be Margot’s illegitimate father…

The novel looks at means of breaking and reattaching often tentative but inescapable bonds: Language, gender, family. The seeming point of harnessing the Oedipal myth here is to state the nature of allegiance in an age when the idea of both family and gender has never been as fractious or volatile. To whom do we belong if not ourselves, the book asks; and yet, in this case, discovering who we are and reclaiming a Self can lead us on a precarious and labyrinthine quest we might not even manage to successfully negotiate in pursuit of this basic desire. How much of us lies in our XX/XY designation versus the person our family perpetuates, and how do either stack up against our own self-perceptions? This is territory that ironically tends to provoke polar and absolute responses – the grey areas in this and all matters are always the truer locations. Everything Under happily dispenses with binary preoccupations. (Italics mine.)

"In the scree of trees crows gathered and then broke apart like jigsaw pieces. It was easier – while not running – for Margot to imagine a life for herself there, a whole new body she could step inside. She was his child or – no – his sister’s child; her mother was dead; she was staying until she was old enough to leave. And, even then, she would visit him; she would help him. Days would be the way they were, slow, easy. He would teach her to cook and to whittle lures, to fish with them. Maybe, even, one day they would move the boat. He would teach her to drive and – when they grew tired of living beneath the shadow of the factory, the town – they would drive away. How does a person give up everything they know? They find something to replace it. He called her son or boy and she thought: maybe. Why not?"

One of Johnson’s persuasive contentions is that we either have a hand in the creation of our selves, or we defer catastrophically to an identity curated by others (another book on this year’s Booker longlist, Sabrina, goes even further in examining the mutability of our fate at the annihilating hands of other people). One of the more intriguing and compelling threads the novel throws up is the malleability of gender as pertaining to different evolutions of nested identity, the leaving behind of not only a corroded former iteration but also the dispensing with a gender. I’m hardly an aficionado of the nuances of gender fluidity, nor the deeply complex issues surrounding the matter, but as someone who has always taken it for granted that gender, whilst fixed, is down to us all to self-fulfil and vacillate across and around (biology irrespective; we should surely be able to inhabit our own mental selves). This part of the novel is where Johnson breaks a little new ground (for this reader at least). To escape her childhood, which culminates by her committing patricide, Margot sheds her given identity (in itself given by foster parents) and assumes the emancipating role of Marcus. It’s hard not to read into this the suggestion that this ‘necessary’ transformation is that of being freed of the ‘wrong’ gender. The murder, in this take, becomes much more about killing off an unwanted self, and finding your way to a happier fit. And the question arises, and I’m not the one to answer it, ‘What is the ultimate end of gender as a perceived state, other than as a means of limitation?’

By this point, Marcus/Margot’s bond with her real mother, Sarah, is ruinous and warped, and the return to the ‘places we are born’ is doomed to disaster. The connect is misread; both early versions of the returning child have already been destroyed. All that remains is the lingering anomalous biological and chemical link. This aspect of the novel offersa wonderfully oblique examination of how parents and children come apart, and how painful, and useless, residual bonds can be. Through language alone, Johnson suggests, can we retain our mutual identities.

Everything Under is rightly on the Booker longlist, and deserves a place on the shortlist. It’s interesting and well done. The shuffled strands occasionally forced a little bit of necessary reorientation, but this is generally an accomplished novel, executed with measured, elegant concision. The bottom line, though, is still surely always: is the text interesting enough/do I care about the characters? And the answer in both cases is: for the most part. It’s a pleasurable reading experience, a nice book, but perhaps often too nice, too innocuous, and perhaps unnecessarily drawn out.

The myth-synonym aspect – which might lend a stronger sense of pervasive impactfulness to a stronger book – feels borrowed rather than seamlessly apposite, used as a means of extending the text, the construction designed to suggest a gravitas that Everything Under often lacks, and finally I was left with the feeling that a very good debut novel had assumed a sense of timelessness and universality it hadn’t quite earned. That’s not to say the Oedipal themes aren’t well explored, but you do wonder if Johnson might have tested herself still further outside the cinctures of such a trammelling guide, which here acts as a receptacle into which some lovely sentences have been poured.

Still, these are themes writers should be taking on; perhaps Johnson will next time look squarely at a pressing 21st century matter without the need for dignifying, epoch-exempt roadmaps. (My guess is a historical novel.) Everything Under always works best outside the mould.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,144 reviews1,908 followers
July 24, 2022
This is Johnson’s first full length novel and it was well worth waiting for. It is a modern telling of the Oedipus myth with a good deal else thrown in. Of course there is a twist and the setting is Oxfordshire and Oedipus is female. The main protagonist is also a lexicographer. The start of the novel sets the tone:
“The places we are born come back”
As does the end:
“There are more beginnings, than there are ends to contain them.”
As in her short story collection there is a proximity to nature and particularly water, a magic realist sense, but in a very English way. It is also very much set within the lower reaches of society. There is a spot of Hansel and Gretel, adoption, a river monster (sort of; named the Bonak, but really it stands for everything we are afraid of ) and a good deal of gender fluidity. The exploration of dementia told through one of the main characters is very effective and well described (I know, I work with those living with dementia). Freud introduced his concept of the uncanny, the placing of something rather every day in an odd, eerie or taboo setting. Lacan’s contribution was to argue that this concept captures the anxiety of not being able to make a distinction between two everyday opposites like good and bad, love and hate, pleasure and displeasure. The Oedipus myth has this sense of the uncanny and brings it into family relationships and this sense of the uncanny runs through the whole book; but it also feels every day.
Johnson herself talks about the importance of getting the right setting and deliberately choose the canals after spending some time on one:
“I was taken with this landscape and with the people who populated it. I think the most interesting thing I learned about it was how isolated from the normal structures we take for granted these people are. They inhabit their own system of rules and structures and would never, for example, ring the police.”
She also speaks eloquently about her exploration and use of transgender characters:
“The first reason that I wanted to write about transgender characters was because of the place gender change has in myth. There is a character I was thinking of in particular called Tiresias, a prophet who was born a man but lived for seven years as a woman. I knew I wanted to magpie this part of myth away. Another aspect of gender change I was interested in was the Shakespearean sort where characters change gender out of fear or necessity.”
Johnson has said that she tries to give types that have been silenced a voice and you can very much see this in Fen, but also here. There is at the centre a mother/daughter relationship which is difficult (“You’d made me and I wanted nothing more than to cut you out, cut you right out of my insides…. You populated me; you ran the spirals of my thinking. I went to work, at at the same desk every day, dreamed of something swimming in the River Isis, dreamed of your mouth moving around words I could no longer hear”), but a lot of myth and symbol as well, however as Iris Murdoch said, we live in myth and symbol all the time. I enjoy Johnson’s writing and her descriptive powers are very good:
“She crawled as far as she could into the bush. There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg. Through the hedge she could see the canal, lit by the oil-spill throw of street lights, the surprise exclamation of car headlights rising and then lowering over the bridge…In the first inch of waking she had forgotten. Then it came back to her. She could not sleep after that. There was a crease of frost on the ground and the sleeping bag was wet. She watched the dirty morning descend over the water.”
Taking on the Oedipus myth is always risky and as Foucault says:
“Everything concerning and around Oedipus is too much, too many parents, too many marriages, fathers who are also brothers, daughters who are also sisters, and this man, so excessively given to misfortune and who ought to be tossed into the sea.”
However Johnson’s take on it worked well for me.
Did I enjoy this as much as Fen, not quite, but then Fen is one of my all-time favourites.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,357 reviews2,286 followers
August 3, 2018
Once upon a time, it was rare to find literary re-workings of classical myth and fairy tales: now they’re everywhere. This book uses a skeleton of both () upon which to hang a story of broken families and searches for home.

The problem for me, and I’m putting this in spoiler tags for anyone who hasn’t yet read this book, is that the premise of the myth just doesn’t stand up in a modern context:

The writing is of that dreamy, lyrical prose style that we can find in many books that inhabit this fictional space – it veers into the opaque at times and can become imprecise under cover of being ‘poetic’. There are repeated images – oranges, for example – but I can’t see what they’re doing here (the golden apples of the Hesperides? Eve’s apple? Neither of these fit).

Similarly, the concern with language: the narrator and her mother used made-up words between them, the narrator in the present is a lexicographer on the OED, the mother in the present is forgetting words due to her Alzheimer’s (and the loss of brain capacity is likened to the size of an orange) but the significance of all this – is there one? – is left unclear to me. I can see from other reviews that these repetitions delighted other readers but personally I can’t read their hermeneutic significance – and images without interpretational weight are empty of meaning. That words create bonds between people is hardly revelatory, surely?

For me, this is a kind of sub-Angela Carter/Jeanette Winterson and the slew of mostly female authors who have followed them in their attention to archetypal stories and ‘dreamy’ (in all that word’s connotations) stylistics.
Profile Image for Jonathan Pool.
513 reviews94 followers
October 7, 2018
***** update****** Following Daisy Johnson In conversation Waterstones Garrick Street, September 27, 2018

* Daisy Johnson was reminded of the Oedipus myth when re reading her 'A' Level drama notes. On the subject of myths, Daisy described the new novel by Pat Barker "Silence of The Girls"- a retelling of the Iliad, as 'phenomenal'
* Mother/Daughter relationship is central. Daisy wanted a watcher character. Watching the myth for us (the reader). Theirs is an unusual relationship because it is not good. That’s how life trauma affects you. Its a realistic novel, based around myth. Daisy started out with Jocasta, but in Oedipus she doesn’t say much, and Daisy needed the outsider
* Tiresias. Daisy was fascinated by the gender change; the copulating snakes, Hira's rage, a chance to address who enjoys sex more- Tiresias as a man or woman!!! Daisy was quite animated at this stage!
* Asked about the lack of 'comfort' in Everything Under, Daisy agreed. She moved around a lot as a child, and while in no way saying she was unhappy, this has informed her view of the unhomely home; the uncanny.
* Asked about the made up language in Everything Under, the job of lexicographer; Daisy said that language is tricky for her; she is dyslexic, and got words wrong, she had felt like an outsider.
* Shares a pub name with its predecessor Fen "Fox and the Hounds" . Daisy had read how Anthony Horowitz gets bored and plays little games with the text/storylines in his books. Daisy's choice was a pub- this is a fictitious pub! This was the first time this had been noticed/commented upon.
* Personal inspirations- Evie Wyld All the Birds Singing ; Sarah Hall- writers of weird, unsettling, things. Angela Carter “Wolf-Alice" from The Bloody Chamber short stories. [A look up on Wolf Alice describes “exploration of the journey towards subjectivity and self-awareness from the perspective of a feral child”]
* Future writing plans: A horror novel set in Yorkshire (Daisy was born on Halloween)
* Writing technique. Lots of planning for the horror novel- which was not the case for Everything under.
* Daisy was put on the spot and asked which of her fellow Booker nominees she had liked best. She has read 10 of the other twelve nominated books. To my surprise daisy then expressed a view, and her favourite from the short list. (I will keep this private!!)
* When I wrote my original review, I concluded with a number of unresolved questions about the book. In Fen he first story "Starver" features a girl who metamorphoses into an eel. Daisy has been asked, is this a literal transformation, or is this a metaphor? Her answer? Either; both; it's what you, the reader, want it to be.

I had previously asked Daisy a direct question about Everything Under, and a part I was puzzled by. She gave me a similar, ambiguous answer. I think this is a sensible, and intelligent, way of dealing with the ranks of amateur sleuths and book critics. But not having a definitive answer it keeps the books alive, debate continues; it’s not an entity with a cut and dried answer... like life itself.

I very much look forward to Daisy Johnson's horror story, and hope she enjoys commercial success in the meantime with Everything Under.

Original review

This is my fourth read of the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2018, and so far, the most difficult to fully absorb.
There is a sense of menace and of foreboding from the start. The book’s central idea, embodied in “The Bonak” is introduced early. The Bonak recalls the Orwellian Room 101; the fears and phobias that sometimes come to us as nightmares in our sleep. The fear of walking in the woods, the hidden dangers that lurk under water in the deep. The fear of men, and groups of men, if you are a woman.
The “Bonak” as a literal entity is the twin of the Greek Hydra, and the Scandinavian Kraken. Water demons have their embodiment in every culture. In Japan the Kappa is a demon whose name means "river child".

Water, the river, the river community, life on a river boat, of barges, is endlessly fascinating. It’s an itinerant community operating with Its own set of local rules, outside the reach of the law.

What is the book “about”. It will be interesting to hear Daisy Johnson’s insights. This is a novel that expects the reader to piece together various diversions.

The Sophocles play, Oedipus Rex is clearly re-worked.
The intrinsic complications and contradictions of patricide and sexual wrong doing has added spice with the introduction of gender fluidity.
The reader is complicit, from an early stage in observing doomed relationships.
It’s been quite a literary year for re- working Greek classicism and Shakespearean themes; and Daisy Johnson is a worthy addition to the list of c.21st century writers giving a contemporary feel to historic morality tales.
Other parts of the book are whimsical, tangential, to say the least
• Why does Otto, a dog, appear at all?
• What are the meanings and significance of the chapter titles specifically delineated in the book?
For example, Formed Of Debris or Beyond The Black Stump
• Just who is Fiona, and why is she necessary?

I really enjoy literature that has an immediate, almost brooding, effect on me; and the knowledge that there’s more to come upon reflection, and from others in the reading community.
This is such a book, and so far, in what appears to be a strong Booker year, I think it has every chance of making the shortlist.
Profile Image for David.
582 reviews122 followers
September 25, 2018
Here are the notes I jotted down while reading "Everything Under". They're not encouraging:

"Fresh but immature.
Experimental but sloppy.
Self-conscious and effortful.
Riddled with problematic grammar."

I can see from other reviews that this is not how the book struck many people, but I'm decidedly in the camp of those who were not enchanted.

It is disappointing that little of substance is actually borrowed from the Greek myth which inspired the story's core. Johnson doesn't really go beyond the 10-second Oedipus "elevator pitch". She then takes the reader up and down that elevator fairly often. And when you're not riding in the elevator, you're hearing about how you soon will be.

The role of gender fluidity is such an important contemporary issue and I was very pleased to see it playing such an interesting role here. I was much less enamored of how often its depiction quickly turns to stereotypical, calcified notions of what a boy would or would not worry about, or how a boy would or would not sleep, when compared with a girl (for example).

There is a lot going on in this novel and I admire the reach, the creativity, the risk, and the somewhat iconoclastic way in which Johnson goes about developing "Everything Under". I just don't think it's executed all that well. With thirteen titles on the Chinese restaurant menu that is the Man Booker longlist, this one strikes me as the soggy spring rolls I regret having ordered. Not nearly crispy enough!

2.5 Stars
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,133 followers
September 20, 2018
Now shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker

"This is your story – some lies, some fabrications – and this is the story of the man who could have been my father and of Marcus, who was, to begin with, Margot – again, hearsay, guesswork – and this story, finally, is – worst of all – mine. This beginning I lay claim to. This is how, a month ago, I found you."

In a year when the Man Booker jury has seen fit to broaden the definition of the prize in several troubling directions - low quality genre fiction, graphic novels, poetry and above all accessible books that prize the message over pure literary merits - it is great to see at least one book that perhaps extends the prize more in the other direction, towards literary innovation and quality prose, and yet still speaks to the issue of borders which seems to be a key theme in 2018 for the Prize, and indeed the world more generally.

In a post prize listing Guardian q&a author Daisy Johnson responded to one question:

"The book that changed my mind:

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear, made me realise that old texts can be torn down and rebuilt in a different way."

Two of the best books of last year were such reteĺlings of old texts in a modern context: Preti Taneja's We That Are Young, shortlisted for the Republic of Consciouness Prize and winner of the Desmond Elliott prize, another retelling of King Lear and the best of a plethora of Shakespeare rewrites; and Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire, shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker and winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction, a retelling of Sophocles's Antigone.

Those two books, as typical for their type, chose to try to work within the real-life constraints of their settings. Shamsie's novel did have a Muslim Home Secretary which struck some as far fetched, only to come true. Her literally explosive ending attracted some criticism but was dictated by the story (the criticism mostly coming from readers who hasn't seen this as a retelling of a myth, since it's origins as such weren't overtly flagged). And Shamsie dropped the father murder/incest part of the Oedipus backstory altogether, replacing it with a neat solution involving Jihadis.

Freud has rather distorted our perspective of Oedipus's story: Oedipus didn't suffer from an Oedipus complex at all. Instead the tale is more around the (in)ability to avoid a predetermined fate and, often forgotten, the abandonment of a child by its parents, which is how Oedipus's story starts, and the later fleeing from his (unknown to him adopted) parents by a child, each in response to a prophecy. And, in modern terms, transgender fluidity plays a role: the blind prophet Tiresias, who alerts Oedipus to his guilt, earlier spent 7 years as a woman.

Everything Under is at heart a modern retelling of the Oedipus myth, in this widest sense, but actually it is so much more than that. Set in the communities of those living on boats on the River Isis around Oxford, the novel also speaks to language (a key theme and particular highlight of the novel) and even includes a moving portrayal of dementia/Alzheimer's in an elderly parent, first seen in the loss of language:

"You are not yourself. You are not the person who did any of those things . You do not remember the language that made you that person.
...
The word you were looking for is egaratise and it means to disappear yourself, to step out of your past. I tell you there is no such word and show you the place in the dictionary to prove it.
...
Small words bother you. Tap, screw, step, handle. You pronounce them wrong or speak as if they mean something else.
...
You are saying the word parasitic over and over again. Now para-SIT-ic. Now PARA-sit-ic. Your left foot knocks out the beat on the floor. At first I do not understand what you are doing but after a moment I realise you are examining your use of the word for flaws, testing yourself for further loss."

Gretel is now a lexicographer and is working on a dictionary entry for 'break' when the present day story opens and when she receives a report consistent with her missing mother from a hospital mortician:

"I tried to work. Break. To separate into pieces. To make or become inoperative. I would finally see you again at the morgue in the morning. Dread was a word that could be used also to describe flocks of birds taking off into the sky. The mass of birds rose up my throat, flooded out through my cracked jaw.
...
There was a tag attached to one of the toes and, on another, a bell. What’s that for? I asked.

He palmed a hand across his scalp. His hands were very clean but there was some food at the corner of his thin mouth. It’s unnecessary, he said, a foible really. Before heart monitors it was to make sure the dead were really dead. I retain a sense of tradition.

That must be where dead ringer comes from, I said, and he looked at me the way people sometimes did when I talked like a dictionary. I wanted to tell him about all the beautiful words I’d thought of during the drive for the places we keep our dead: charnel house, ossuary, sepulchre.

Do you want a countdown? Three, two, one? he asked. Some people do.

No."

And as a child Gretel and her mother had words they used all of their own, as Marcus observes when he encounters them:

"The more he listened the more he understood that the words were instinctual, formed from the sounds things made or words Gretel had come up with as a baby which had stuck . Watching them he realised that it had been just them for so long it did not matter if no one understood . They had cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically."

Johnson doesn't adhere too slavishly to her source. Indeed it is rather like a dramatic production where one actor plays more than one part: in Johnson's Oedipus Rex, Laius goes blind (like Tiresias and later Oedipus in the original) and also speaks in "riddles, in codes and secrets" asking Oedipus the Sphinx's 2nd riddle. And another character seems to stand in for both Tiresias and the Oracle of Delphi.

Instead Johnson mixes in elements of various other fairy tales and myths, most notably Hansel and Gretel ("
a pattern laid out behind you like a reversed breadcrumb trail"), leaving the reader with lots of clues and allusions to follow, and also adds a memorable supernatural element of her own in the Bonak, the most weird and haunting aspect of the novel, a word initially invented as part of Gretel and Sarah's private language:

One of those words being Bonak (see below) as Gretel reflects towards the novel'end:

"Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did. Effing along, sheesh time, harpiedoodle, sprung, messin, Bonak. Bonak, Bonak, Bonak. Words like breadcrumbs. As if all along Bonak didn’t mean what we were afraid of, what was in the water, but watch out; this is what is coming down the river."
...
"What’s a Bonak? Marcus watched her heaving the mechanism back down, snapping it into place.

It’s anything, she said , gritting her teeth.

What do you mean?

Last summer it was this stupid dog that was so hungry Sarah said it would bite. But ages ago it was a storm that nearly wrecked the boat and another time it was a fire that burned a lot of the forest and that we thought would burn us too. This winter it’s something else. Sarah says maybe it’s the worst Bonak there has ever been but we don’t know yet.

It’s what you’re afraid of?

It’s the Bonak, she said simply and wouldn’t talk about it any more."

The book is expertly constructed from four interlacing stories frpm both present and different times in the past, with the narrator, Gretel, using the 1st, 2nd (as she tells her dementia-suffering mother her own story) and 3rd (as she imagines that of Marcus/Margot.) This could have been confusing but part of the journey is orientating oneself in the story, and the different threads are clearly signposted by chapter headings:

"There are more beginnings than there are ends to contain them. Somewhere you and the father who is not my father are in a narrow bed, as yet unafraid, long limb to long limb, mouth to mouth as if one of you was dying already. Somewhere I am standing in the dictionary office listening to the phone ring in an empty morgue. Somewhere I am opening the door to the cottage on the hill and you are pushing past me, commenting on the beige wallpaper that has been here as long as I have, the mouldy cornices and lack of ashtrays. Couldn’t you even buy a bloody car? And somewhere Margot is walking. Here I fall back on imagination, possibility. I fit her words into my cheek and hope she will not mind if I make allowances, embellish. Somewhere she is walking and perhaps she hears me, the echo of repetition and thinks, That’s not right. Listen. Listen, this is how it went."

With that background then, the one rather disappointing part of the novel was how ultimately the plot of the book (and to be fair this book is so much more than just plot) depends on a delayed revelation of "the things Fiona had said just before she’d told [Margot] to go" away from her parents. This quote comes from is the first quarter of the novel, but we are then drip-fed various hints (almost thriller style) throughout, but with the final big reveal deferred to the last 10% (yes, I read this on a Kindle) of the book. The problem is that since it has been directly lifted from the most famous element of the source, it is rather obvious to the reader all along, albeit Johnson does have a final twist of her own.

"What had been said was not a truth only a suggestion of one way it might go. And if she knew what was coming she was certain she could avoid it. Like a car crash."

And the novel also fails (unlike say We That Are Young and Home Fire) to make the developments particularly credible in a modern setting albeit Johnson does neatly link in the rather secretive nature of the canal community:

"She pointed down towards the water. I spent some time on the canals when I was starting out. Not an easy job. 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."

5 stars as a literary novel but only 3 judged purely as a retelling of a myth, making 4 overall.

But a book I was delighted to see make the Booker shortlist and (particularly this year) a potential winner.

Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.
Profile Image for Maddie.
116 reviews47 followers
November 23, 2018
Rating: 3.5


Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is a “but” book. I’ll explain… my experience will reading it and, now, as I attempt to gather my thoughts and write my review is easily categorized with a single sentence: It was good, but…

To be fair, I had incredible high hopes for it after reading Johnson's short story collection Fen. I was looking forward to see the whimsical flavour and her lush writing tackle a full-length story I could be immersed in. Even before it was longlisted (and now shortlisted) for the Man Booker Prize 2018, it was on my radar as one of my most anticipated releases. After the fact, it received rave reviews from some of the people whose opinions I follow and trust. Overall, a book I was already enamored with, even if I had not read it. Let’s call this love-at-first-book. Like love-at-first-sight, once you get to actually know the person, you may find they are not, after all, the ideal fit. I can assure you my heartbreak over not enjoying this book as much as I would have thought is far greater than any love-at-first-sight experience I could ever have with other human. That should be enough to tell you how disappointed I am.

However, it wasn’t all bad. There were some moments of true bliss while reading the book, which is why it might hurt even more. Oh, the potential! Oh, my expectations! Not exactly met to its fullest.

Everything Under is the story of Gretel, a lexicographer in her mid-thirties whose mother abandoned her when she was sixteen, never to be seen again: until the opening of the book. Iit is the mystery of this decision, the why and hows that led Sarah, the mother, to make such decision, that drive the plot. Slowly, answers unravel through the journey of past and present that Gretel and, consequently, the reader along with her, are forced to make.

A huge theme in this book is the idea of memory: how it shapes us and haunts us, how no matter how much we want or try to forget, some things can never leave us. They are seeped into our very own being, “not a thread behind us but an anchor”. But also, the other side of that very same coin: how we want to remember but can’t (we learn Sarah is suffering from dementia/alzheimer) or how we perceive things differently, experience them in different ways and how, in that way, the memories we hold are not the same as other people’s:
“There were some things she said that I did not remember though I thought I’d remembered everything about that time. (...) It unnerved me. Even the history I thought I’d kept was wrong. I knocked my fist against the counter.”

As someone who deeply enjoys to ponder about the nature of memory and is concerned with the very same things Johnson muses about (in beautiful, seering prose, by the way), reading the meditations throughout the book unveiled a deeply mature person in the voice of the writer. However, and because I am also judging this book against all the books longlisted/shortlisted for a prize, I can safely say Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is a far better read if you’re only interested in reading about memory.

Despite the “mystery” at the centre of the book, a theme that is even more deeply explored than memory is fear and its manifestation. While the theme of memory is explored through the characters themselves and how they react to the past, present and future, fear becomes a character in on itself, and a major plotline to the growth and understanding of the characters.

Like in her debut collection Fen, the setting of Everything Under is still deeply rooted in the East Anglian/Norfolk landscape with all its rivers and water-related plantation, which she does a wonderful job describing. (*EDIT: I don't remember it ever being specified in the book but turns out, according to the author herself, the narrative takes place around Oxfordshire and not the Fenlands, as I originally suspected. However, the author also considers the two to have a very similar feel) (Thank you Paul, Gumble's Yard and Antonomasia for the info).

My favourite thing about her debut collection and that, thankful, she carried over to this first novel, were the elements of eerie fairytales and mythic beasts. In this, we have Bonak: a frightening monster that haunts Sarah all through her life, whose fear she transmits to Gretel. Shaped like all monsters are, of fear, fueled by it as well.
“The Bonak is here too, rattling through the rooms above our heads, languishing in the bath. Now and then it has your eyes or long feet rather than a tail. Now and then it has fur rather than scales or walks upright or is a shadow, barely even there. (...) There are flat-roofed boats floundering and a man who whittles a lure big enough to catch what we are afraid of. Whatever we are afraid of.

As expected when a main character is a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, language also plays a big part in the book. Whether externally, through the use of second-person narration, or internally, as part of the character’s lives (Gretel is a lexicographer and she and her mother invented a language that was just their own, with words only they knew the meaning of):
“Effind along, sheesh time, harpiedoodle, sprung, messin, Bonak. Bonak, Bonak, Bonak. Words like breadcrumbs.”

Another theme, this time intrically derived from the myth “retelling” (I would say more of an inspiration, since Johnson took only the general, broader strokes of said myth (which I won’t name because it could be considered a spoiler) rather than reworking it or retelling it): the theme of fate/determinism and the (possible) illusion of free will; the idea that some path is set out for us in the beginning of our lives and there is nothing we can do to stop it, avoid it, change it:
“(...) you say only that there is no escaping, that the way we will end up is coded into us from the moment we are born and that any decisions we make are only mirages, ghosts to convince us of free will.”

“But sometimes I wonder if you are right and if all of our choices are remnants of all the choices we made before. As if decisions were shards from the bombs of our previous actions.”

And here’s when the “buts” about this book became too much for me to ignore. There were a lot of things I loved about this but! I couldn’t shake the feeling that, and it seems to be a common mistake made by debut authors, Daisy Johnson tried to accomplish too much. If Everything Under was only a “myth retelling”, it could have been stellar. Likewise, if it was only an exploration of memory through familial relationships and bonds, an exploration of deep ingrained fears, and even an exploration of the idea of fate, without resorting to the elements of the myth and the attempt of a retelling, it would have been better. These things, together, created a fractured narrative that disguised a thinly veiled illusion of a plot and undermined elements that, on its own, would stand out brilliantly. And this is my biggest issue with the book: it could have been two books and I would have been glad.

All that made me believe that Johnson lost control over her narrative, at times rushing, other times slowing down to almost numbly slow moments that did not add anything new to the setting, the characters or the plot.

Overall, this was a strong debut that perhaps received too much pressure from its premature nomination to the Booker Prize. Either way, I am still glad I read it and continue to be interested in reading what Daisy Johnson writes next, as I believe she has the potential to become a truly great novelist.
Profile Image for Trudie.
515 reviews548 followers
August 25, 2018
*3.5*

There is much to admire in this debut novel, (not least of which is that cover by Kustaa Saksi) but also a great deal that left me a little underwhelmed.

Starting with the the things I loved about Everything Under. Sarah, was the standout character for me, a singular, powerful influence, free-spirited and wild, slightly eccentric. At the start of the novel Sarah seems to be suffering from dementia and has been missing for a decade from her daughter, Gretel's, life. My favourite sections of the book are devoted to Gretel's hunt for her mother, while reflecting back on their early life together living on the river. It was immaculately done this slow piecing together of the past. Conversations between mother and daughter that are fraught with difficulty as Sarah struggles to hang onto her words and Gretel tries to come to terms with why she was abandoned by her own mother. I found it really emotionally affecting and wished this story could have carried the entire novel.

The other thing I admired about Everything Under is the writing itself, it shows both a real joy in words and a great appreciation for rivers and the canal boat lifestyle. Johnson builds up an entire language for the river -

effie meant the current was faster as in the water was effing along or effying along the banks; that sills was the noise the river made at night and grear the taste of it in the morning

Even though there is a thread of dark menace almost always present as represented by the canal thief or Bonak , somehow Johnson still makes this idea of living next to flowing water seem quite appealing to me. In this regard Everything Under shares some bits of DNA with Mozley's Elmet in that interesting portrayal of life beyond the black stump.

However, for my own reading taste I wished Johnson would have ditched the "narrative scaffolding" of basing this on a classical tale. I believe she had enough going on without the plot contortions she inevitably had to make to brand this a re-telling. It is hard to escape the fact the Kamila Shamsie did this exact thing almost flawlessly in Home Fire and while these are two very different novelists the comparisons in the "classical re-imagining" genre are inevitable.

I could go on at length about why certain plot points didn't work for me but as with all reading it comes down to a matter of personal preference. No doubt if finding links between texts and motif spotting is your thing, there is much you could deem symbolic. People eat many oranges, lamb stews, bananas and limp spring rolls, presumably these are a directly taken from the Greek original. Everyone seems to have large hands and small wrists, there is the obligatory blindness, the discussion on predestination and of cause we lurch inevitably towards the PROPHECIES.

I found it all a little tortured.

This book needed more Sarah and Gretel, more river boat shenanigans, more lexicography, more dark whimsy, basically more of Daisy Johnsons own storytelling and not some old Greek dude ;)

So then, where do we end up ?. I think this is a beautifully written debut, an atmospheric near miss.
Profile Image for Renee Godding.
569 reviews543 followers
November 30, 2021
"There are more beginnings than there are ends to contain them."

5/5 stars

Daisy Johnson earned herself a very much deserved place on the Man Booker longlist 2018 with this stunning debut novel. Everything Under is an exploration of the murky depths of memory, set in an equally gloomy and atmospheric world of canalboats, muddy riverbanks and creatures of folklore that may or may not lurk in the waters.

Although it’s masterfully crafted, it’s not an easy book to read; the author really makes you work for it. During the first 100 pages I was as lost as the characters were, and although this might not make for the most pleasant of reading experiences, it fits the themes of the book perfectly. Just like the protagonists memories, the world of Everything under is shifty, volatile and non-linear. Similarly, just like memories, the chapters are not marked by date, but by setting or by being “pre- or post-” certain major memories, that act as anchors for the other ones to be linked to.

Again; this is doesn’t make it easier for the reader, but personally I loved this aspect of the book. I’m fascinated by the way we remember. Even though we perceive our own memory as some infallible and unchanging database, the truth is far from that. This novel is one of the most striking representations of that nature I have had the pleasure of reading.
Yet there is so much more to the novel than just that. It’s packed to the brim with interesting ideas and themes. Some might say “overpacked”, and although it walks a thin line, the author manages to keep things connected enough to pull it off.
It talks about language, about folklore, about family relationships, gender and fear. All through the same lens of fluidity and mutability, which ties everything together. I would love to go indepth on all of them especially the exploration of fear via a creature of folklore, but as this is such a new release I want to keep this review completely spoiler-free.

Speaking of spoilers; my one point of critique would be towards the marketing-team. I don’t know if this was intentional, or a interpretation by first reviewers, but the book was marketed to be a reworking of a certain Greek myth. Personally, I would have preferred not knowing this before going in. Firstly; this is only one of the storylines and not representative of the entire book. Secondly; being familiar with the myth “spoiled” this storyline a little for me, as I read this entire storyline through the lens of knowing what was to come.

As a final note I would like to touch on the prose, which in one work was spectacular. It’s one of those rare cases where you know based on a debut alone, that you may have found a new favorite author for years to come. I cannot wait to see what this young woman does next.
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews848 followers
August 30, 2018
This novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows Gretel, a lexicographer, who's recently tracked down her estranged mother Sarah. It's a tricky plot to summarize as it unfolds with a nonlinear chronology, but it ultimately pieces together the fractured narrative that connects Gretel, Sarah, and a boy named Marcus who stayed with them on their riverboat for a month when Gretel was thirteen, before disappearing.

Daisy Johnson's prose is accomplished and lyrical; of the Man Booker longlisters I've read so far, I'd say she's only behind Donal Ryan in terms of prose quality, which is an incredible feat. This book is stunningly atmospheric; the water beneath Gretel and Sarah's riverboat feels like a living, breathing entity, and the whole novel has a tone that's both vibrant and feral. It can be difficult to rework Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, but I felt that Johnson achieved this with aplomb, turning the ordinary into something almost mythical, which perfectly suited the kind of heightened drama that inevitably must unfold in a story like this.

I'm not really sure what's going on with the marketing of this novel, because in some promos I've seen reference made to the myth it's retelling, and in others I haven't. I did know which myth it was going into it, and rather than hampering my experience with the novel I think it enhanced it. But I have seen others say they wished they hadn't known this information ahead of time as the knowledge does naturally give away quite a few plot points. But I don't think it's a novel which endeavors to shock the reader with its twists and turns, and with fate and free-will at its thematic center, I don't think it's difficult to figure out where the story is headed, even quite early on. So, I guess it's up to you whether you want to look up the myth it's retelling, but if you're a Greek mythology lover, I think you'll enjoy knowing ahead of time so you can properly appreciate Johnson's positively masterful foreshadowing and symbolism.

The reason I've dropped it down to 4 stars from 5, which I thought it would be for most of the time I was reading, was that I wasn't very enamored with certain elements of the ending. I have to quote my friend Hannah's review where she talks about the last 20% of the novel: "Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text" - this was my main issue as well. The stunning subtlety that I had so admired about the first three quarters of this book was sacrificed for a very literal manifestation of one of the novel's themes, adding a sort of fantastical element that I didn't think was necessary. What can I say, I just don't like magical realism.

But ultimately I did think this was an incredibly strong debut (!!) novel. Johnson's prose was incredible, and the amount of thematic depth here really took me by surprise. Johnson provides us with a thorough meditation on fate, agency, breaking and mending familial ties, the role of language in shaping us. I really loved this.
Profile Image for Doug.
1,895 reviews643 followers
August 22, 2018
Although I ultimately found much to both admire and enjoy in this unusual novel, I also have to admit that I was perplexed almost as often, finding it difficult to orient myself for at least the first half (which seems to be intentional on the part of the author). I almost began to question if I, much like the character of Sarah, was suffering from the beginnings of dementia, since I couldn't seem to grasp even simple connections or keep three timelines straight ... which normally isn't a problem for me. A careful reading is imperative, since often things which seemed throwaway lines (such as a baby abandoned with oranges in a bin), come back to be of vital importance. Ultimately I more or less 'got it', although there are still a few loose strands to contemplate (i.e., Otto - although subsequently reading several reviews have clarified both this and other issues).

Most of my GR friends, especially those in the UK who are more familiar with the setting of the book, have enthusiastically given this 5 stars; I can't quite get that excited about it, but DO hope it gets shortlisted for the Booker, so that I can justify a quick re-read, and perhaps get a bit more from it. I ALSO intend at some point reading 'Fen', Johnson's debut collection of short stories, and given my anathema towards that format, it's the ultimate compliment towards her!

PS ... maybe because of the beginning 'B', but the Bonak brought to mind the creature in the Aussie film 'The Babadook'!
Profile Image for Blair.
1,726 reviews4,076 followers
July 31, 2018
Everything Under is about just that: the things that lurk beneath the surface, of a river, of a memory, of a person. It is a slow unspooling of a horrifying and tragic story, a queer, found-family (sort-of) reimagining of a myth – I'd best not say which one, though it's mentioned in loads of reviews if you're curious. It should be unbearably disturbing. Yet it is also beautiful and ethereal, a story that casts life on the margins as both magical and ruinous.

Gretel and her mother Sarah are 'river people' who live outside society and outside the law. Gretel grows up using language she and Sarah have invented together, a two-person idioglossia that, later, will leave her feeling she can never quite mesh with the ordinary world. (She ends up being a lexicographer, a detail which, now I think about it, is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, but it works in the context of the book.) Central to their vernacular is 'the Bonak', which is both a specific monster and a way to describe anything that frightens you. 'Last summer it was this stupid dog... ages ago it was a storm that nearly wrecked the boat and another time it was a fire.' It haunts Gretel into adulthood, though its meaning shifts.

When Gretel is 13, Sarah disappears. In the present day, they have been reunited, and Gretel has brought Sarah to live with her in a cottage 'not big enough to hold the two of us'; but Sarah has dementia and her memory, like her behaviour, is erratic. Gretel is trying to coax out of Sarah the story of her lost years and, at the same time, she is going back over her own memories. These are patchy too. She remembers someone called Marcus who came to live with them for a short time, but who he was, and what happened to him, is unclear. (The timeline is occasionally muddy and I admit I sometimes lost track of what order things had happened in – but honestly, this kind of obscurity suits the story perfectly.)

Everything Under is a hazy novel of magic and murk, isolation, legacy and personal legend. It casts the sort of spell that covers over its flaws: as mentioned above, a few of the details are rather too obvious, and some of the characters' actions seem clearly engineered to fulfil the plot's trajectory and not at all a natural consequence of whatever situation they're in. (I think, now, this is why I didn't find it more shocking.) But I'm only seeing this now I'm out of the story and analysing it; while I was immersed, its enchantment had me completely in its grip.

I received an advance review copy of Everything Under from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
640 reviews3,116 followers
September 13, 2018
Daisy Johnson's debut book of short stories 'Fen' was a bewitching example of how modern-day real-world issues could be given a darkly imaginative fairy tale spin. So I've been greatly anticipating her debut novel which references both 'Hansel and Gretel' and the myth of Oedipus. Before reading it I went to see Johnson speak at a Waterstones event focused on modern reimaginings of myths (since it's a literary trope so in vogue at the moment given recent novels from writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Madeline Miller and Colm Toibin.) It was a relief to hear Johnson explain that she wrote “Everything Under” in such a way that no knowledge of the Oedipus myth is necessary to understand this new novel since my only familiarity with Sophocles' tragedy is mainly through the complex made famous by Freud. Nor have I read the original fairy tale of 'Hansel and Gretel' since I was very young.

So I went into reading this novel focusing purely on the story itself rather than how it relates to these classic tales. I wasn't disappointed because I'm so drawn to the universal themes she writes about, her characters who are outsiders on the margins of society and her strikingly distinct writing style. The beginning is so powerful in how it beautifully describes the sense of how we are tied to a sense of home which has forgotten us. However, I was quite confused throughout sections of this novel which jump through large periods of time and between characters. The story involves adoptions, gender fluidity, the disorientating effects of dementia and an elusive mysterious river monster named 'The Bonak'. But, by the end of the novel, I was fully engrossed and moved by how the pieces of the story slid together to form an impactful conclusion. It's the sort of book which I know will benefit from a rereading now that I understand its characters/plot better and the classic myths which were reworked into its structure.

Read my full review of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
972 reviews1,181 followers
September 19, 2018
You'd expect it to be more experimental, a novel about a professional lexicographer who shared a private childhood language with her mother. (Instead, there are just occasional items of idioglossia, and a few mentions of words she's worked on, common words, inside a typical literary-fiction style. Only one of their unique words has the potential to make readers think about the meanings contained within a lexeme, like foreign terms that pack ideas into one word which English treats as separate.)

I'm sure there are people who'll connect deeply with this book and love it, the way I have with other books that some readers found so-so. (If you're an only child caring for an eccentric parent who now has dementia, I can see how it may resonate.) But it went by as if I was watching it from a train window: I could see what might matter to others, but it didn't touch me.

I found a lot here that's good but not spectacular. It described, for example, seeing how an elderly relative has aged in ways that once would have seemed to me vital articulations of how things are, several years and several hundred books earlier. Now they seem good, but... yes.
Everything Under is steeped in the now not-so-new New British Nature Writing... liminal blah; riffs on monsters from English folklore and urban myths blah... Even if quite a bit of it is set in Oxfordshire, it feels rooted in the author's home territory and setting of her previous book, Fen: it's folkily East Anglian, lots of water and down-at-heel-ness and muddy spookiness. (I wanted to find an illustration of one of those slightly sinister-looking traditional Norfolk marshman fishing outfits to explain a little of that visually, but all the pics I could find were of people in relatively modern clothes.) I'm not sure if nature writing has yet jumped the shark with the wider reading public, but I do know that I and a couple of friends who were always really into the mystical-tinged psychogeography sort of thing now feel there's an oversupply of it; it's getting boring, some of it isn't that good, and it's making us very picky when we do bother with it. I read Everything Under straight after Sarah Moss' Ghost Wall, which was a very different sort of 3-star book, the sort that's brilliant in some ways and flawed in others, not alright all round and a bit meh. The prose in Everything Under feels like a 50/50 dilution of Moss's visceral, vivid descriptions.

The book was so very much like I imagined it would be, having previously read a few reviews and the first couple of pages, that its lack of insidiousness and surprise became the main surprise. The only unexpected thing was that it ended up being rather cosier than its subject matter is, like a popular novel about the Blitz. And a literary novel of good calibre (this being a Booker longlister) should still be able to surprise and sparkle regardless of one or two spoilers. As Booker judges re-read books to winnow down the shortlist, will this make a difference?

Everything Under does some things well. I'm easily irritated by second person (I couldn't read If on a winter's night a traveller for this reason) but Daisy Johnson makes it seem open, interesting and not in the least creepy, and it acts as a window on to character relationships: it was like being in the same room as Gretel and her mum, rather than being addressed personally. I always felt the characters had lives off the page, a lot of life, and that there was more to them than readers get to see. I thought I'd really like Gretel if I met her (and even if I disapprove of a few things she does, I'm evidently only bothering to say so here because they're not as socially sanctioned as some other things I disapprove of just as much and which people are always doing). At some point I realised I'd rather meet her than read about her in the confines of this novel: that would have been a lot more fun and alive.

I didn't feel Greek myths obtruded too much into the text. Only central elements of myth are used, it's not plot point by plot point. It never seemed as if the sole reason for Everything Under was yet another myth-retelling, the way it is for various works from recent feminist novels to the output of 18th-century poetasters - it was more as if place and characters had occurred first, and an additional way of structuring their interaction was needed.

It struck me that the community of canal dwellers works as a way of writing about travellers without any of the political baggage and audience preconception that would entail in Britain. In a way they are like the Romanies romanticised in old children's books (Alison Uttley springs to mind) but somewhat grittier, and very much more human and individual. (It is glossed over, how Gretel went from patchily home-educated but obviously bright tearaway dumped in a sink school, to working for the bastion of the Queen's English, but it doesn't seem impossible if a fantastic teacher or two crop up later in her unseen story. This isn't a book that deals overtly with many of the teenage problems you'd find in realistic YA fiction. Just as, WRT another character )

This is one of those books about which I long to read reviews by people who know, from the inside, the more obscure worlds it alludes to, or who might provide extra insight: lexicographers, trans people, those who've spent years living on barges, travellers. As it is, going on current info, the book passed the time well enough without impressing me hugely. (And I get a twinge saying that, after reading about the author's framed sign in the acknowledgements - but Daisy Johnson has a Booker longlisting and some great press reviews, so if a few members of the public dissent to one extent or another, it's hardly likely to matter.) If I could get a glimpse of the book through some other lenses, maybe I'd see more to it. But returning especially to the protagonist's occupation and the scope it provides for wordplay, this novel also looks like a missed opportunity to create a more intellectually ambitious work.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books752 followers
April 3, 2020
About halfway through, I put this book aside to read other things. I wasn’t sure if I’d finish it, but one night before sleep, I picked it up again because it was close by. Before that time, I’d already read what I thought of as the big “reveal” and any tension I might’ve felt from the story had leaked away. A reveal to the reader was likely not Johnson’s intention, but by the time the characters figure out what’s happened, their comprehension felt superfluous, at least to me.

Without spoilers, I can say the fate of a main (though ultimately peripheral) character seemed a throwaway event. In fact, all the characters—except for the narrator and her mother—were dropped easily when they were no longer needed. The only theme, or philosophical message, I received from the work is that it’s impossible to escape your fate; if anyone tries to help you do so, it will happen anyway, and everyone will suffer. Even that theme seems peripheral to the story of the two main characters.

Johnson writes well, though her style doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. Even though she gives her rendering some (superficial?) twists, perhaps it would’ve better served her not to be constrained by a retelling of an ancient story.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,076 followers
August 22, 2018
Everything Under examines a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship through language. The invented words and phrases they share (sheesh time, duvduv, harpiedoodle) set this reclusive pair apart – they ‘cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically’. This singular childhood experience leads directly to the daughter’s career as a lexicographer (she’s currently working on the word ‘break’: to separate into pieces; become inoperative; sustain an injury). Meanwhile, her ailing mother’s command of words breaks down due to Alzheimer’s.

Everything Under is also a reinterpretation of a well-known myth, transported to a modern English setting, with literary allusions and metaphors galore. Disorienting to begin with, everything becomes clear in a gradual unfolding that is skillfully done.

On top of that, it’s also a dark folktale, set in an eerie riparian dreamscape, complete with a sinister water-creature called the Bonak. The atmosphere is menacing, and the Bonak is genuinely creepy.

These separate elements (the words/the myth/the creature), while intriguing, felt just a tiny bit underdeveloped and I never quite found the book’s emotional core. And it was unclear how this specific Greek myth (why this one?) was supposed to resonate in a modern setting. The plot is itself trapped in its own predestination: certain events unfold as inevitable, not because this feels true to the characters and their circumstances, but because the retelling requires it.

My first impulse was to say the book tries to do ‘too much’ but on reflection I don’t think that’s it. I love the layered complexity and this particular melange of ideas. But maybe – and I never say this – it just needed to be longer. An extra 50+ pages might have allowed enough space for this story to really come to life for me. Johnson’s prose style is lovely though and I will definitely keep an eye on her future work.
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