Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

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About transitions and boundaries

(vf) The first novel “Everything Under” by the British writer Daisy Johnson is a fairy-tale version of the Oedipus myth with a touch of magical realism. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Johnson tells the story of a young woman, Gretel, who is reunited with her mother, Sarah, after many years of abandonment. Sarah now suffers from dementia, but Gretel is still hoping for answers about what has happened and why her mother left her.

This is an absorbing story moving through time, different locations, gender and states of mind tied, all together by the past that is inevitable to make sense of the puzzle that is the present. The opening line “The places we are born come back” not only sets the theme but also provides the structure of the narrative – “Hunt”, “river”, “cottage” being the map.

Words and syntax are important to Johnson and it is not by accident that Gretel works as lexicographer. When living in isolation at the river with her mother, they developed their own language, synonymous with their private world. The outside world was always present in form of the vague threat of a river monster named “Bonak”.

“Everything under” is a good read but left me initially untouched. It is only in writing this review that I can see that the questions about identity and transitions raised in this novel got me to think about myself – what was choice and what was destiny.

A book that is quick to read but asks for reflective pauses.

(Penguin VINTAGE, 2019 (2018) paperback, 264 pages)

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