Everything Under by Daisy Johnson – review

A reunited mother and daughter delve into their eerie past in Johnson’s complex, Sophoclean melodrama

Daisy Johnson’s debut, Fen, was a bewitching collection of stories set in a marshland town where humans turn into animals and cannibal temptresses lure lovers to their doom. The magic realist style let Johnson approach topics such as anorexia and domestic violence from surprising angles while giving the sense that she felt the business of generating otherworldly thrills was a worthy artistic goal in itself.

If Fen occasionally left you feeling underfed, it made you eager to read whatever Johnson wrote next. The novel she has now produced is a trickier beast, remixing the myth of father-slaying, mother-marrying Oedipus to portray him as a girl in modern-day Oxfordshire. The narrator, Gretel, is a lexicographer who spent her teens in foster care after she was abandoned by her mother, Sarah, who raised her hand-to-mouth on a houseboat after going off-grid with an older man she encountered on a canal towpath. Now reunited after 16 years, Gretel is coaxing Sarah into telling her life story – an enterprise made tougher by her creeping dementia.

As they recall their private language centred on terror of “the Bonak” – a spectral riverside monster that still haunts their sleep – Gretel regularly interrupts the conversation to describe how she trawled local hospitals in her search for Sarah. The hunt led her to seek out an old acquaintance, Marcus, who (as told in another thread, from his point of view) spent part of his itinerant youth on their boat, after committing murder while in the grip of a nightmare.

If this sounds hard to follow, it is. A less trusting writer – or more impatient editor – might have name-tagged or date-stamped the alternating segments. Supporting characters seldom come clearly into view even when they’re vital to the plot, most of all “elemental, alchemical” Fiona, a transgender clairvoyant whose terrible prophecy causes a former foundling named Margot to flee her adoptive parents. And while the twists are signposted – we’re told five pages in that Marcus “was, to begin with, Margot” – the story still spins you round, not least because there’s more than one Gretel, which casts new light on Sarah’s dementia.

Johnson excels at making psychic phenomena feel visceral; someone wakes up feeling “the last threads of the dream he’d been having tangling about his face”. Even so, you sense right from the first line – “The places we are born come back” – that the novel’s air of gnomic dread depends on syntactical tinkering (a typical phrase runs “there was a shifting, infinitesimal”) as well as sinewy imagery. The Bonak seldom feels scary – it’s just another vague presence among many – until right at the death, when Johnson’s descriptions start to strike the queasily eldritch note required.

A gnarled tale of doomed mother-daughter relationships, Everything Under goes all out to portray womanhood as a trap. “There is no escaping... the way we will end up is coded into us from the moment we are born,” Sarah tells Gretel. “Any decisions we make are only mirages, ghosts to convince us of free will.”

So much for gender-swapping, which does nothing to prevent the catastrophe foretold by Fiona; but for all the rhetoric, tragedy here feels fated by nothing so much as Johnson’s fidelity to the source material (in her acknowledgments, Sophocles is named first). The result is an eerie melodrama in which the bloodshed seems more mimed than motivated – and which tosses, almost in passing, a grenade into debates over self-determination, luridly staging the supremacy of biological fact.

• Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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