I was intrigued by the premise of Everything Under, the debut novel from Daisy Johnson who previously earned praise for her debut short story collection, Fen. Everything Under is a book which I had heard great things about, which was also shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, so I was excited to read it.
Here we uncover the story of Gretel, a lexicographer who is content with a largely solitary existence, spending her days working on dictionary entries, with words and language being important to her. In fact, we learn that Gretel once had a language of her own, one which she shared with her mother. And when a phone call prompts Gretel to recall this secret vocabulary, she sets out to find her mother, who she hasn’t seen for many years. This presents an air of mystery and intrigue, and I was keen to read on and piece together Gretel’s family history. And her life is not the most conventional, as she grew up on a canal boat, and has some strange and wild memories from her time on the river, a time in which she crossed paths with some interesting people, whilst being fearful of a mysterious creature lurking in the water…
In Everything Under, Johnson has taken the stories of classical mythology, and adapted them to a modern day setting, which feels unfamiliar. And Gretel of course shares her name with another familiar character from a fairytale which along with the presence of the sea creature emphasises the role of folklore in this unusual tale. The characters we meet are interesting and it didn’t take me long to be drawn into their stories as Gretel searches for answers as she relives the past and those who shaped it. The narrative alternates between different perspectives, as well as shifting through time. As a result I would say it wasn’t the easiest story to follow but this added to the unsettling and unusual tone of the book. Ultimately, this is the story of the complex relationship between a mother and daughter, the past they shared and look back on now after so many years apart. It also explores themes of love and language, gender and identity, and finding a place where we belong.
Everything Under was an interesting book, and whilst I did find it a little hard to get into at times I was drawn in by Johnson’s style of writing, and her portrayal of these relationships playing out by the river, with the secrets and mysteries that lurk above and below the surface.