Book review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

During the course of every month I get to read a few books, courtesy of a daily 2 hour commute from the depths of Fife to Auld Reekie. And when I finish a particularly good one, my brain’s always buzzing with thoughts and reflections on what I’ve just read. This blog seems a good place to put them, so I’m starting with an absolute cracker – Everything Under, the first novel from Daisy Johnson.

Johnson’s previous book, Fen, is a collection of short stories that really knocked me for six. They’re incredibly earthy, elemental stories that quickly get beneath your skin and wriggle about. The settings and protagonists are everyday, real, yet in every case there’s some kind of dread becoming apparent as the story progresses, driven by a cold inevitability. At times there’s the same sense of close personal horror coming out of the shadows that I felt from Mariana Enriquez’s remarkable Things We Lost In The Fire (an equally impressive, shattering collection of short stories) but swapping the latter’s sun-blasted Argentinian urban setting for the rural flatlands of East Anglia, not a million miles from where I grew up (and almost absent in film and literature). Anglian Gothic, anyone?

Some writers have a real knack of invoking a particular location, channelling a sense of place that goes beyond describing the landscape. On the strength of both Fen and Everything Under, Johnston has that knack in spades. Fen evoked perfectly that sense of living somewhere small, uneventful, barren, the rural emptiness a cage of sorts.

Everything Under builds on elements from those short stories – the written voice is recognisable, the closeness, the strong female inner voice, the sense of being an outsider, increasingly adrift, a primal earthiness seething and pulsing underneath normality, threatening to break through at any moment – and uses the space of a novel to develop and build on them further. Here’s the synopsis:

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.

As the story progresses, there’s an increasing sense of inevitability, of being pulled by the current towards something dreadful but unavoidable – a sense mirrored in the way the narrative unfolds and reveals itself. A number of different events in time run in parallel through the book, switching from first- to third-person perspective – initially it’s unclear how they connect, but all becomes clear in careful, subtle reveals. It’s a story that rewards your attention, as strands (or streams) come together.

The scope of the story is relatively narrow – the number of characters is in single figures, the range of locations few – which allows it to move in close, really close, to those characters, to an almost claustrophobic degree. You increasingly care about them, even as the story flows into the realms of Greek tragedy. You see where the story is leading, and you really don’t want to go there, but the current is too strong, unstoppable.

It’s a brilliant novel that absolutely lived up to high expectations, and well deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist. The quote on the back of the book is spot on – on the strength of Fen and Everything Under, I’ll be following Johnson’s writing for life.

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