Our bookseller David reviews Daisy Johnson’s richly woven debut novel!
As a card-carrying member of the “I Take History Seriously” Team, I’ve gained a reputation for my love of miserabilist non-fiction. From How Europe Underdeveloped Africa all the way to Late Victorian Holocausts (an actual book title!), if there’s been a vaguely depressing title to read, I’ve sought it out.
But I’ve decided to start a clean slate as of this moment: I’m reviewing something contemporary(!), fictional(!!) AND only partially depressing(!!!). And what could be a better fit with those three qualities than Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under.
One disclaimer: Johnson’s narrative does refer to elements of European folklore, which is rooted in historical experience, as well as a not so subtle retelling of the Oedipus myth (so perhaps it’s not a book to read along with Mother). Some of the best moments in the book come from the ways Johnson adheres to and deviates from these myths while exploring the boundaries and fluidity of her characters and settings.
And fluidity, to quote Val McDermid, is “the single word that sums up this beautifully written debut novel”. Everything is changeable, nothing is immutable, even time and location become a deliberately confusing swirl of experience and subjective thought. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be off-putting or annoying; in Johnson’s hands, it becomes rapturous. Her experience lies in short stories (as evidenced by her fine collection of short stories, Fen) and Everything Under’s short, punchy chapters play to this strength, allowing passages like this to breathe and avoid feeling overly long or oppressive:
“I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to. The past signed to us: clicks and cracks in the night, misspelled words, the jargon of adverts, the bodies that attracted us or did not, the sounds that reminded us of this or that. The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor. That was why I looked for you all these years, Sarah. Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall. But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.”
Lush, poetic descriptions of places, people and sensation run through the book, streaming and teeming with life like the canals and waterways that Johnson brilliantly brings to life. Whether we are being shown hints of monstrousness (real? Imagined?), brilliantly realised sensuality or incredibly resonant descriptions of the effects of dementia on a family, everything is fully fleshed out.
And while there are occasional moments when Johnson lapses into being a touch too direct about what she intends to be meaningful for the reader, these are few and far between and never compromises the overall quality and immersion of the experience.
Gender, sexuality and identity are common themes in the book, with Johnson exploring deftly the idea that myth and folklore can help and hinder us when it comes to understanding ourselves and connecting with others. Using Sophocle’s Oedipus and the traditional folk tale of Hansel and Gretel as the main inspiration, with plenty of other imagery from our collective folklore unconscious (trademark that, Jung!) popping up throughout it. Johnson does well to make sure that none of this feels shoehorned and takes the appropriate elements of myths that are needed to shape the reader’s experience better, rather than attempt to match her narrative comprehensively to any single folktale.
I can heartily recommend this book. Fiction often has to do a lot to win me over but in this case, I was charmed from the start. At points electrifying, the book is constantly insightful without tethering itself to self-certainty. A modern classic; Daisy Johnson is one to watch out for in the future.