book review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018 (UK)

 

This novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows Gretel, a lexicographer, who’s recently tracked down her estranged mother Sarah. It’s a tricky plot to summarize as it unfolds with a nonlinear chronology, but it ultimately pieces together the fractured narrative that connects Gretel, Sarah, and a boy named Marcus who stayed with them on their riverboat for a month when Gretel was thirteen, before disappearing.

Daisy Johnson’s prose is accomplished and lyrical; of the Man Booker longlisters I’ve read so far, I’d say she’s only behind Donal Ryan in terms of prose quality, which is an incredible feat. This book is stunningly atmospheric; the water beneath Gretel and Sarah’s riverboat feels like a living, breathing entity, and the whole novel has a tone that’s both vibrant and feral. It can be difficult to rework Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, but I felt that Johnson achieved this with aplomb, turning the ordinary into something almost mythical, which perfectly suited the kind of heightened drama that inevitably must unfold in a story like this.

I’m not really sure what’s going on with the marketing of this novel, because in some promos I’ve seen reference made to the myth it’s retelling, and in others I haven’t. I did know which myth it was going into it, and rather than hampering my experience with the novel I think it enhanced it. But I have seen others say they wished they hadn’t known this information ahead of time as the knowledge does naturally give away quite a few plot points. But I don’t think it’s a novel which endeavors to shock the reader with its twists and turns, and with fate and free-will at its thematic center, I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out where the story is headed, even quite early on. So, I guess it’s up to you whether you want to look up the myth it’s retelling, but if you’re a Greek mythology lover, I think you’ll enjoy knowing ahead of time so you can properly appreciate Johnson’s positively masterful foreshadowing and symbolism.

The reason I’ve dropped it down to 4 stars from 5, which I thought it would be for most of the time I was reading, was that I wasn’t very enamored with certain elements of the ending. I have to quote my friend Hannah’s review where she talks about the last 20% of the novel: “Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text” – this was my main issue as well. The stunning subtlety that I had so admired about the first three quarters of this book was sacrificed for a very literal manifestation of one of the novel’s themes, adding a sort of fantastical element that I didn’t think was necessary. What can I say, I just don’t like magical realism.

But ultimately I did think this was an incredibly strong debut (!!) novel. Johnson’s prose was incredible, and the amount of thematic depth here really took me by surprise. Johnson provides us with a thorough meditation on fate, agency, breaking and mending familial ties, the role of language in shaping us. I really loved this.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman

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47 thoughts on “book review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

  1. Great review! I am torn on whether knowing ahead of time which myth is being retold, it didn’t bother me but maybe some of the twists would have worked differently otherwise (not better, just differently). I need somebody who did not know to weigh in on this.
    But it is for sure absolutely stunningly written.

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    • It is SO difficult for me to get perspective on this. Because as someone really, REALLY into Greek mythology I feel like I would have spotted the retelling a mile away even if I hadn’t known? And it’s not like it’s a particularly obscure myth, so I also feel like most people will see the ending coming either way? I just don’t think it’s possible to be shocked by this story, but maybe I’m wrong… I would LOVE to hear from someone who read this without knowing the myth ahead of time.

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    • I didn’t know ahead of time, and like you, imagine going in knowing would have made for a different, though not necessarily better or worse reading experience.

      The moment when enough had been revealed for it to click in my mind what myth it was based on was such a moment of pathos, as it became inevitably tragic where the story was heading; which of course tied in beautifully to the existing theme of fate vs. free will.

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      • Oh, I hadn’t realized you hadn’t known! That’s actually something I hadn’t considered – that realizing the myth on your own and having everything fall into place must have been so delightful. I guess Hannah and I were robbed of that since we were anticipating it the whole time and trying to figure out how it was going to come together. I do love a good ‘aha!’ moment. But I totally agree that this makes for two entirely different reading experiences, though it’s hard to say whether one or the other was ‘better.’

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      • Yes, I’m glad on a personal level I didn’t know, as there was that gut punch moment when I realised the tragedy that awaited the characters. But I can also totally see that marvelling from the off at how cleverly she was weaving everything together would have been enjoyable in its own way! Johnson is such a talented writer that thankfully I think both experiences work.

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      • That reminds me of How to Be Both, with the two narratives told in a different order depending on which copy of the book you pick up, and how either way it works SO well. Not quite the same thing, but still. My mind is blown by how accomplished this is for a debut.

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      • This btw, totally unrelated, reminds me of a date I had as a teenager where we watched the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet and my date tried to predict how everything would be wonderfully resolved for the HEA he expected. He was not impressed when I burst out laughing. (my flatmate in uni wasn’t happy with me when I made her watch Gone With the Wind – because she apparently did not know the ending beforehand.)

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  2. Yay, I’m so glad you liked this too! My one gripe was the exact same as yours; I thought the psychological ambiguity was to the book’s credit, and that one particular thread didn’t need to be made so literal at the end. BUT, it’s such a beautiful, intricate, and intelligent novel.

    Great review! 😊

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    • I bet you knew exactly how I was going to feel about that 😂 I was torn between whether that one thing was enough to lower it to 4 stars, but I was also thinking that this is right on par with From a Low and Quiet Sea which I gave 4 (both technically 4.5 but I am a slave to Goodreads rating restrictions) so I need to stay consistent! But yes, it was just a stunning book. I’ll definitely want to reread it at some point.

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      • Yes! I was genuinely thinking the whole way through, ‘Rachel’s going to love this…’, and then THAT scene happened, and I thought, ‘uh oh, magical realism…’ 😂 I couldn’t bring myself to knock a star off, because I loved so much about it, and know that I too often struggle with magical realism in long form fiction, but can definitely relate to the perils of no half-stars on Goodreads.

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      • I am nothing if not predictable 😂 I really need to take your advice and check out some shorter magical realism and see if that works better for me. Since ‘magical realism’ is such a broad thing and I feel a bit bad about saying I hate all of it. But I’ve yet to see anything achieved with magical realism that couldn’t be better achieved with a good old metaphor 🤷🏻‍♀️

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      • It’s definitely a tricky balance to strike, and I need to explore more of it too! Johnson has written a collection of magical realism short stories, in fact, so I’m very intrigued to see how I get on with that now I know how good a writer she is.

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    • I don’t really get it either, to be honest. The magical realism element in this one would have been SO much more hard-hitting if it had just been rendered as a metaphor, instead of an actual physical thing… alas. But, I definitely still loved the book regardless. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

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  3. Magical realism can be really hit or miss for me but it definitely helps knowing that it is in a book before I pick it up! I am happy to hear you enjoyed this one because it is one of the few books on the Man Booker longlist that I am interested in, and the cover is gorgeous!! Awesome review!

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    • Thank you!! I really hope you enjoy it! Magical realism is a miss for me, like, 95% of the time, but thankfully it’s just that one isolated element that didn’t work for me here – I really really loved the rest of the book. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

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  4. After seeing both your and Hannah’s reviews of this I’m really looking forward to reading it!! It sounds delightful.

    I’m gonna try my best to not look up which myth this is retelling. I think it’ll be more fun if I can figure it out on my own! (Though halfway through I might jut get frustrated and look it up anyway lmao)

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    • Oooh that’s exciting I can’t wait to hear your thoughts especially re: the retelling aspect!! I’m 99% sure you’ll figure it out lol, it’s not apparent from the first page, but about… 40% into the book it becomes VERY clear.

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  5. Working out the myth on my own wasn’t too hard – the fun bit (well, if “fun” can be construed to mean “heartrending”) was working out *how* it was all going to fall into place. That was where the intellectual meat of the novel was, for me. I think you’re right about the over-literalization of the ending, too; it almost seemed to contradict some earlier statements about the Bonak and how it was a product of thought, imagined into existence.

    Re. magical realism, have you read David Mitchell or Natasha Pulley? (Or Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being?) They’re all authors whose work has magical realist elements, but in a very integrated way (it helps that Pulley writes historical fiction and that Mitchell’s work is often semi-historical); if you do want to find a magical realist author who works for you, one of them might. (Oh, and also The Prestige by Christopher Priest.)

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    • Then it sounds like our experiences reading it were quite similar, both more focused on the ‘how’ than what the myth actually is. I guess the only difference is that I was trying to figure out which characters were which from the very first page, but you probably weren’t too far behind. I don’t think Johnson exactly takes pains to hide the mythological references. And I felt the exact same about the Bonak – I found that literal scene ironically very anticlimactic, as it did undermine a lot of the novel’s earlier subtext.

      I’ve read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell which is apparently the least David Mitchell-y of his books, though I did love his style and have been wanting to read some more from him. I haven’t read any of the others but thanks for the recs!

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  6. Lovely review, and I’m sure I will read this one of all the Man Booker books, since I’m the most excited about this one. I cannot wait to get lost in the lovely writing, even though I know nothing about the myth itself.

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  7. […] 5. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson** shortlisted Quick summary: A lexicographer reflects on her fractured relationship with her mother, thinking back to a period in their life when they lived together on a river boat and were visited by a stranger for a month one winter. Quick review: Johnson’s prose is accomplished and lyrical, and the depth to this novel is rewarding and unexpected, though unfortunately the awkward integration of a magical realism element did not work for me at all. Full review HERE ★★★★☆ […]

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  8. Great review!! I wonder what Greek myth you mean – the book made me think of Shakespeare plot-wise, but in terms of writing it definitely has more of a myth feel to it. I think the manifestation of the fantastical element was rather inevitable to the story. And even its manifestation you could interpret in a psychological way rather than literal – I don’t want to spoil things here but there is so much symbolism throughout the book that I thought this could possibly just be another. Or not – I don’t mind anyway. But I am a sucker for magical realism, so perhaps I’m biased.

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    • (SPOILER) not that anyone else is reading this thread in February, lol

      It’s a retelling of the Oedipus myth! Where Margot/Marcus is Oedipus and Sarah is Jocasta, and Fiona is Tiresias. But I definitely know what you mean about the Shakespearean vibe, I definitely got that too. There was such a tense and dramatic inevitability that I really loved about this.

      I actually know exactly what you mean with that comment! Even the reader ‘seeing’ something that was possibly a psychological manifestation was a bit too much for my literal sensibilities, lol, but I totally agree that that’s a valid interpretation. And again, I don’t think that element was an objective fault of the book, more just not to my taste. But I’m very glad it worked so well for you!

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      • Ugh, I had a brain tilt moment. When I said Shakespeare, I thought Oedipus Rex, and completely forgot this is based on a myth in the first place.

        But magical realism is a difficult genre to recommend in general. I don’t even know if one is supposed to be interpreting things at all – that is just how I do it for the most part. And it plays a lot on what you expect from a story, so unless you expect magical realism, it can totally feel like a contemporary gone weird or so. I had that issue with Ava Lavender.

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      • It definitely makes for interesting discussions, at any rate! I do think a certain amount of ambiguity is intentional on the author’s part, and it’s interesting to hear how different people interpret that.

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