Everything Under — Daisy Johnson

Everything Under was a difficult book to form an opinion of. A re-imagining of the Oedipus story, Johnson follows a lexicographer, Sarah, and her attempt to find her mother who abandoned her as a child. She intertwines this with stories from the mother, now suffering from dementia, who gradually reveals details of Sarah’s childhood, as well as with stories from Sarah’s own memories. This intertwining is clever, and subtly done, and I greatly appreciated the trust Johnson placed in her readers to follow barely developed side characters across time, with little effort placed in really locating a scene.

Johnson’s description of the waterways of Oxfordshire reveals her appreciation for the landscape. It’s little surprise that her first collection of stories was titled Fen, and I may need to try that at some point.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects of the book that fall short. A monster in the waterways haunts Sarah, but I never found the descriptions of it particularly compelling or menacing. Sarah herself is largely unsympathetic. And ultimately, I think Johnson ends up constricted by her source material. The end felt inevitable not because the characters involved were pulled inexorably towards it, but more because Johnson had signalled her paralleling of the Oedipus plot so frequently that she couldn’t not finish as one might expect.

This isn’t to be taken as a general criticism of retelling old stories: writers can do so with great success. But they either need to be adding something to our understanding of the story, or subverting our expectations in some way. Johnson did neither. Hence my difficulty in forming an opinion. I really liked Johnson’s style, but felt the overall plot and characterisation let down a potentially very good book.

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