All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Man Booker Shortlist #3: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

on November 2, 2018

Everything Under
Daisy Johnson
Jonathan Cape
2018, 264p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.

A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, Everything Under is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that leaves you unsettled and unstrung.

This was my third read from the Man Booker shortlist and it was….a bit of a mixed bag. I can’t say that I liked it and at the time of reading it, it was my least favourite but I’ve since read (or attempted to read, so stay tuned for that one) another one that was such a struggle it makes this seem like my favourite book in the entire world.

The story here is of a non-linear structure, going back and forth in time and revolving mostly around Gretel and her mother Sarah. During most of Gretel’s childhood they lived on a boat moored on a river and had almost nothing to do with anyone else. Gretel and her mother had their own language and when her mother abandoned her at sixteen to the ‘system’, it was a learning experience for Gretel that some of these words that were so part of lexicon were made up or adapted from mispronunciations of words that Gretel had done as a baby or small child. Perhaps this fascination with words led to Gretel’s career, working on updating the Oxford Dictionary entries. It’s a slow, methodical process, a solitary lifestyle that suits her just fine. She’s been looking for her mother ever since her mother left, constantly calling hospitals and morgues, dreading one day getting that call.

When Gretel finally does reconnect with her mother, Sarah is suffering Alzheimer’s and the writing around this was definitely my favourite part of the entire book. Johnson writes this with empathy but also with stunning frankness – the ugliness of this illness, the way it strips a person down of who they are and what they know. It was really well done and Gretel’s patience and determination to nurse her mother through this stage was admirable.

What didn’t work for me was the magical realism bit – or the rest of the book. Admittedly I only know the bare bones of the Greek myth it draws its inspiration from but I didn’t particularly find the unravelling mystery of the character of Marcus/Margot particularly interesting or shocking. Some of the events were later on but it also seemed a bit forced, like this didn’t seem a logical conclusion of the interactions. Perhaps that’s the magical realism kicking in, the mysterious creature they all fear which must be stopped, which they have their own word for. It just seemed like too much was happening, with the inclusions of Marcus/Margot/her family/Fiona and Gretel’s own interactions with them as well as the childhood story, the Bonak or whatever they called the river creature, the adult relationship between Sarah and Gretel.

Whilst I found this very easy to read and it’s not a long book so it only took about two hours, I struggled with it in other ways. Some of it is beautifully written and I appreciated that. There’s imagination here as well but this is not really my kind of magical realism. Perhaps the jumps back and forth in time and the vagueness contributed to that but half the time I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on and it seemed the book asked questions only to jump somewhere else and leave you hanging for a while before it bothered to answer them, which got frustrating. The whole thing of Marcus/Margot felt so drawn out it got ridiculous after a while. For me this was just okay but my primary interest was the relationship between Sarah and Gretel. To be honest, everything else was just a distraction.


Book #184 of 2018


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