Booker Longlist Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

by Sunita

Johnson’s debut novel (after a collection of well-received short stories) has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and has mostly quite positive reviews, so I’m in the minority in seeing it as a very mixed bag. It has some lovely turns of phrase and the descriptions of nature (and the characters’ relationships to nature) are striking and often very effective, but the overall project just didn’t work for me. The novel feels both over-egged and under-baked.

It’s over-egged because there is just too much going on that doesn’t feel entirely under the control of the author. It’s about a mother-daughter relationship, growing up in an unusual community, mysterious mythical creatures who sow fear and dread in that community, family secrets, and the reworking of Greek myths in contemporary terms. That’s a lot of freight for one short novel to carry. While the character of Gretel does most of the narration, the fulcrum of the book is her mother, Sarah, whose choices and actions shape much of the forward momentum of the past and present storylines. She gets an assist from the character of Fiona, a transgender woman who sees the future and feels compelled to warn those in danger. Fiona’s premonitions bring two storylines together in a way that is surprising unless you haven’t been told of or figured out which Greek myth is being reproduced here.

The under-baked part comes from the sketchiness of opacity of many of the characterizations, with some of the characters seeming to exist primarily to further the plot. Sarah, whose character is essential to giving meaning and depth to the story, remained frustratingly out of reach. I was told she was charismatic and nearly irresistible, but I rarely saw why. Margot’s family was strongly on page when Gretel needed them for information and when Fiona’s part in the story was at the forefront, but they weren’t fleshed out much beyond that, and even in the scenes in which they appeared they felt half-drawn. Charlie came across the same way to me.

Fiona and Sarah embodied stereotypes that made me skittish. Fiona’s transgender status sometimes lapsed into caricature (her badly applied lipstick, for example), as did the whole character in some scenes, moving from picaresque to grotesque. Sarah was given the physical and some of the personality characteristics of a Traveller stereotype, and the canal boat community’s attitude toward the authorities recalled that as well.

I’ve seen the book described as “experimental” but I didn’t find it to be particularly unusual or innovative in its setup and execution. The setting moves between the present and the past, the latter through flashbacks and narrative recounting by the characters. The narration shifts from first to second to third person at different times. The language is full of simile, metaphor, and lush imagery, but it never overwhelms the story and works well to establish atmosphere.

The main characters are parts of biological and found families, with young women taking center stage, either reliving their experiences via flashback or recounting past events in the present time. In terms of Booker choices, this novel evoked last year’s History of Wolves and Elmet in its combination of dreamy, vaguely timeless settings where nature plays a major role and parent-child relationships are intense and potentially destructive. And of course the reworking of myth was done by Shamsie last year and in my opinion far more effectively.

In the end, this book promises a lot more than it can deliver. If I had fallen under its spell, I might have ignored the weaknesses. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t help but notice that when people talked about “language” what they really meant was “vocabulary” (Gretel and Sarah made up words, not wholly different modes of syntax, structure, and grammar). And I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that a teenager would immediately leave home on hearing a neighbor (however loved and admired) tell her she would play out the terrible consequences of a famous myth. I think I was supposed to believe that Margot was in thrall to Fiona, but the text didn’t get me to buy it.

This is an ambitious and at times very engrossing novel, but it falls short in execution. But given recent Booker shortlist decisions, I can see it making it to that stage.

3 stars at Goodreads.

(And I was right in my hunch at time of reading, this is on the shortlist.)