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Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. A book review by Phoebe Alice Gilroy

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

The mother-daughter relationship in Everything Under is unconventional and it is with this that Daisy Johnson has demonstrated that women are far more than their archetypal roles. Our realities are often far from and far more than convention – what is the conventional family, anyway? – which makes this novel that is so entrenched in the fantastical and that plays around with narrative structure and language all the more real. As Iris Murdoch in a 1962 article for The Spectator wrote, ‘the mythical is not something ‘extra.’ We live in myth and symbol all the time.’

Gretel’s mother disappeared sixteen years ago and she has been searching for her ever since. The narrative is tangled, swinging backwards and forwards in time and the assumption is that the narrator is grasping for a reason for her mother’s disappearance, all the while grappling with feelings of loss and anger. This exploration of the Oedipal means that we are never fully satisfied and quite rightly so: one can never truly understand another’s reasons for anything. Gretel warns that ‘there are more beginnings than there are endings to contain them’, and perhaps it is always true that there is never really an end to anything, only new beginnings. To this end, the portrayal of Gretel’s mother is mercurial: ‘You were the messy river,’ Gretel says. ‘You were the pines shedding bark in summer and the ground littered with my metal traps.’ Reminiscing on their shared language (The water ‘effs’ along; everything that comes down the river is a ‘sprung’; time spent alone is ‘sheesh’ time) there seems a waning by Gretel into a fondness, yet elsewhere Gretel searches for her mother in hospitals and boathouses and by habitually calling up local morgues because ‘sometimes I thought that I kept doing it to make sure you were not coming back.’

Underpinning and binding with this narrative is the threat of something that lurks beneath the water in the rivers of Oxfordshire that is the setting for the novel. The ‘Bonak’ is oft referred to ‘as everything you are afraid of’, including forest fires and thunderstorms but most recurrently takes the form of a creature that is ‘double-headed, has more limbs than it must need, flings in and out of the dull pockets of candlelight’. The monster is also a shared symbol of tragedy which may or may not be the reason Gretel’s mother left, and the later catalyst to a murder. Here, Johnson proves herself a master weaver of plot and of the mystical with the everyday, fit to rival Angela Carter.

Phoebe Alice Gilroy

Everything Under is published by Vintage

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