Everything Under by Daisy Johnson review – a stunning debut novel

Longlisted for the Man Booker prize, this complex story about a troubled mother-daughter relationship creates a strange new mythology

My introduction to Daisy Johnson was the instant classic Fen, a bold, take-no-prisoners collection situated somewhere between Angela Carter and Deborah Levy. The muscular style and blunt poetry of its stories about women often forced to contend with difficult men used the fantastical in brilliantly physical ways. Johnson’s first novel, longlisted for the Man Booker prize, builds on that achievement by blending a deep understanding of character and storytelling sophistication to examine a troubled mother-daughter relationship. The result reminds me of Iris Murdoch – that uncompromising interiority of character – and more recent works such as Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond.

The narrator, Gretel Whiting, writes early on that “there are more beginnings than there are endings to contain them”: a crucial lesson about life and memory that shows us how to read this complex, uncompromising novel. Until she was 13, Gretel lived on a canal boat with her mother, Sarah. But she hasn’t seen her for 16 years, and her search for her mother pulls everything else in with it: past, present, future. It even affects her work in Oxford updating dictionary entries. She gets stuck on the word “break”, comparing her memories of Sarah to the task of defining awkward words. She checks morgues compulsively and revisits a flat she once shared with her mother.

Sarah is as mercurial and shape-shifting in memory as another liminal creature: the being known as the Bonak, or “canal thief”, whose presence the grim fishermen on the river mean when they say “things go missing in the night”. Gretel has felt the presence of the Bonak her whole life, as well as its shifting identity; in one breath, she says she thinks her mother has killed it, then snaps at a friend: “It’s anything … Last summer it was [a] stupid dog.”

Part of the reason the Bonak can remain ambiguous, and why Everything Under can shift between so many stories and remain coherent, is that the novel’s sense of place is so organic and detailed. As in Fen, Johnson’s affinity for the natural world is extraordinary, even when dark and ominous. She writes of “the mud from the edges of the riverbanks, the rabbits in their cavernous burrows, the moorhens that slept on the low branches”. Insects don’t just crawl; instead, “the ground itched with wood lice, millipedes”.

Does the Bonak actually exist? Does Sarah still exist? The artfully eccentric mother-daughter relationship lies at the heart of the novel, surrounded by a thicket of men animated by their own cruelty, menace or uncertainty. They fall away and return in much the same way as the Bonak. Some are murdered.

Gretel can’t remember much about “that final month” she spent on the river with her mother, only the arrival of Marcus, who stayed with them, and may once have been called Margot. (The novel also explores gender roles and gender fluidity.) “Forgetting is, I think, a form of protection,” Gretel writes. But forgetting cannot provide resolution, so present-day Gretel resolves to track down Marcus, only to discover a former friend, Fiona. Fiona may be the only person who can solve the mystery of why Gretel left the river and why she became separated from her mother.

I tend to rebel against reading works in the context of their most obvious symbols. In Everything Under, whatever remains of Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel, or of Greek myth, has been reduced down like the rotted wood of a sunken rowing boat marinated in a decade of mud. It reads more like allusion or harmless scaffolding: something of passing use to the narrator. And what is left behind forms a unique, strange mythology emanating from the truth of these characters and the landscapes they inhabit, both internal and external – as if with each forward step and each backward one into the past, their own reinvention remakes the folklore, too.

This is important, because part of the nature of understanding is that it’s messy, requiring circling back and moving sideways, along with many, many retreats. There is an additional challenge in the way Gretel uses the second person to directly address her mother throughout. Sarah is always there for Gretel, and time becomes blurred, as if all moments occur at once and in the same place, dominated by the flow of the river. It’s an ambitious gambit, but what could be muddled and tangled is in fact rendered with astonishing clarity.

After she receives a phone call that may be from Sarah, Gretel as an adult will return to the place where she once lived. The Bonak will be hunted down. So will meaning. So will death. As she writes: “What comes back to us from that long-lost trailing river? … What did we summon up there?” There will be no easy resolution, but there are surprises and cautious reconciliations. The mystery comes into focus, and if it is not completely solved, simply seeing its clear outlines is a kind of victory for Gretel. Some things will always remain lost. We are, in some ways, back at the start, having retraced our steps, but we are different now, changed for ever by the journey.

• Jeff VanderMeer’s latest novel is Borne (4th Estate).

• Everything Under is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £10.99 (RRP £14.99) 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.


Jeff VanderMeer

The GuardianTramp

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