I was lucky enough to hear Daisy Johnson speak earlier this year, on a cold and rainy winter evening in Gower Street Waterstones.
She was there with Jen Campbell to discuss fairy tales in their work. Johnson – at the time – was promoting her first book, a collection of short stories called ‘Fen’, although she did allude to this novel a few times.
Both of them up on the little stage chatting with the host, when I walked in I wondered if they were actually the authors I had come to see.
Daisy Johnson, in particular, has quite a young face and great spirals of golden curls. And yet there she was, the very same age as me, discussing her first book with another soon to come. It should have been the glorious beginning of a deep and powerful envy-fuelled hatred, really.
That said, I thought at the time that she spoke very eloquently about her work, and about being an author in general.
When a girl about my age waved her hand in the air and said she was a ‘wannabe writer’, Johnson shut her down with fourth-wave flair: ‘if you are a writer, call yourself a writer. Nobody else will if you don’t.’
I decided at that moment to make a small space in the envy cloud to allow her through.
‘Everything Under’ is such a genre-defying wild-child that the best description I can give of it is the following:
Gretel, a lexicographer, lives a quiet life in the shadow of her relationship with her estranged mother, Sarah. Brought up on a canal boat, Gretel’s childhood has been marked by the delights and the troubles of being an outsider, carrying her and her mother’s ‘secret language’ and the mythology of the canals into adulthood.
But she is haunted by one particular summer when they were joined on the boat by Marcus. A mysterious teenage drifter, Marcus leaves their lives as abruptly as he entered, but what happened to him? What does her mother know that she won’t talk about?
It may surprise you, then, to hear that ‘Everything Under’ is actually a completely unique retelling of the Oedipus myth.
The magical kingdom of the boats
The novel is set in the present, and indeed Gretel lives in a modern version of Oxford and works a normal job.
But the story dips in and out of her childhood, which was spent in a version of England which seems unnervingly like a fairy tale world.
The canals of Oxford suddenly become other-worldly in Johnson’s story. She deals with ‘otherness’ with a very deft hand, locating the unknown within the familiar and mythologizing it for modern times.
Taking advantage of our outsider’s perspective she allows the uncanny to live within reality. It’s a strange effect, something like constructing a bubble of magic realism within a modern cityscape.
But the overall outcome is to have us believe that myth and fairy tale are as alive today as they ever were.
The man, the myth
The Oedipus myth tells the story of a boy who is prophesied at birth to murder his father and marry his mother. If you are unfamiliar with the original myth you will almost certainly have heard about the Freudian application – the Oedipus complex – in which Freud suggested that young children are subconsciously attracted to their parent.
Not the most obvious story to lend itself to a retelling on the lazy canals of suburban Oxford, but the beauty of ‘Everything Under’ is its ability to sit comfortably in modernity.
I’ve spoken before about the role of fairy tales today, and one of the reasons I believe that they are going through such a boom currently is because of our need to rewrite them to fit our modern reality.
‘Everything Under’ is a perfect example of this – gender is fluid in the novel. Without wishing to give too much away, it becomes clear that one of the central characters is not all that they seem, lending a surprisingly feminist twist to a myth which is classically male-centric.
It’s a novel with a profound and subtly expressed understanding of femininity and what it means to us now.
Decisions are mirages
Unsurprisingly for a story based on a prophecy, inevitability is a big theme in ‘Everything Under’. In fact, the sense of dread of what’s coming is palpable from very early on.
Even as the reader works through the story, they are teased with the illusion of hope: ‘no – I must have got that wrong…’ ‘no, that doesn’t fit…’ ‘surely not!’
Therein lies the tragedy of the original myth – not so much the prophecy, which is awful in itself, but the idea that it might somehow be escapable.
Should I encounter Daisy Johnson again, I would ask her what it was that led her to retell this particular myth. The story is so laden with foreboding that I wondered if she were making a comment about the determinism in our own lives, especially as women.
To what extent are we really allowed to choose our own path? Even if we refuse to conform to the expectations we think are laid out for us, are we really just fulfilling our destiny without much say in the matter? To what degree can we change what we, essentially, are?
Overall ‘Everything Under’ is too complicated to fit into a single review. It’s the kind of novel that I can see frustrating generations of students with tricky essay titles. But it is a very impressive novel, totally original in its approach. I found the pacing slightly dragging towards the middle of the book, but the payoff makes it worthwhile.
It’s a real delight to see Johnson’s novel be released to instant success. She told us at Gower Street that she had rewritten it fully about seven times – with a Man Booker longlisting under its belt, clearly, it paid off.
Who else has been sniffing around the Man Booker longlist? Any initial thoughts?