To say Daisy Johnson’s debut novel Everything Under (her first published work, Fen, was a collection of stories) is confusing at times would be an understatement. Yet, there is something compelling about it that makes you keep reading it, and wanting to find out what exactly is going on. It’s these types of novels that find themselves nominated for awards (and Everything Under was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize), yet also find themselves avoiding a lot of bookshelves or sitting around unread due to their complexities when it comes to reading them. If you do happen to pick it up though, not to mention finish reading it, you will find yourself thinking about what it all means for a long time afterwards.
Everything Under follows the story of Gretel, a lexicographer who finds herself searching for the mother who left to fend for herself at the age of sixteen. She hasn’t seen her in a lifetime, and has spent most of her life wondering where she wound up. As she finally starts to draw close to answers however, memories start returning to her. Memories that she had long buried, such as an invented language her and her mother spoke to one another, a life living on a boat on a river, and a strange boy who came to live with them for a short time. While she searches for her mother, Gretel also starts to search for what really happened during her past, and in the end she discovers that some of the answers are ones she doesn’t really want to have answered.
Everything Under is told in chunks, jumping from one timeline to another, from one character’s perspective to another, which can make it very hard to follow. What also adds to its confusing nature is how there are two Gretels in the story, something you really don’t realize until much later. There are also characters that swap genders, which also makes things even more difficult until you get used to it. Johnson also chooses not to use apostrophes when the characters are talking, so you have to determine for yourself if what is written is speech, or just something the character is thinking. If you can cut through all the artistic flare of the novel though, you will find a very nice story that retells the Oedipus myth in all its tragic glory.
In the end, Everything Under is not a novel for everybody. It’s a difficult read that makes you go back over what you just read in order to fully comprehend what is going on. And like the original myth the story is based on, it’s a tragedy that will haunt you long after it’s done.