Everything Under, Daisy Johnson – Book Review

Hello humans! As many of you know, this year I have read a number of retellings, so many in fact that I have decided to name this the year of ALL THE RETELLINGS. Today I am reviewing the second of the Greek Mythology retellings from this year (the first being Circe which I still haven’t written a review for…). Everything Under is long listed for the Man Booker prize this year and is a retelling of Oedipus, not a myth many would tackle and certainly not in the way that this book does!

everything under daisy johnson

Goodreads Summary:

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.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, Everything Under is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that leaves you unsettled and unstrung.

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I’ve been somewhat delaying writing this review because I wanted to wait and see if there were any own voices trans reviews out there, but I haven’t managed to find any (if you spy one let me know and I’ll link it here). So all this should be prefaced with the fact that I, a cisgender woman, can’t comment on the representation of the trans experience that this book does delve into.

I can’t claim to have read a huge number of Man Booker prize listed books, in fact there’s only one that I know for sure I have read (Work Like Any Otherbut you do get a feel for the kind of stories they tend to be. I mean, if you don’t know the story of Oedipus then you should probably look that up first, but you don’t go into the retelling of a Greek tragedy expecting laughs, this certainly isn’t a story to read if you’re feeling a little emotionally fragile. That being said, it’s not just a misery-fest, the things that befall these characters are entirely realistic (though this isn’t an ordinary tale of everyday folk). It doesn’t have that feeling of being smacked over the head by someone shouting ‘ISN’T THIS SAD’ at you that some books have.

What I liked about this book was the way the author chose to tell the story through a multitude of perspectives. Not only is the narrative multiple POV but you gradually encounter more characters within the story who help to fill in some of the blanks and confusion, picking apart the words of previous characters. By the end of the story, and it isn’t until quite close to the end, you finally unravel what may have actually happened. This is one of my favourite storytelling techniques, I’ve also found it used to huge success in The Fifth Season. It’s a little like reading a mystery novel at times.

I’m not sure what it would be like reading this story without knowing (at least a little bit) the original Oedipus story, because a lot of the things I found clever or interesting were because it was seeing how they did x, y, or z in this context. I’d be interested to read the perspective of someone who ‘went in cold’ as it were, would this still seem as clever of a story if you didn’t have that nuance?

Overall, I was fascinated by the way all of the disparate ideas, characters and settings fit together in this book. Yes, it does get a little heavy at times as books like this are wont to do, but if you struggle through some of the more ‘worthy’ passages there is a very powerful story underpinning everything with some very heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking passages.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars

I received a digital advanced review copy of this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

What say you? Have you read any Man Booker prize winners/listed books in the past? Let me know in the comments below!

J

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