Daisy Johnson’s debut, “Fen,” was a bold collection of weird and wonderful short stories that largely centered upon women without men. Her setting was the low-lying marshlands of eastern England, a plain, unremarkable landscape that Johnson employed to stage a host of strange acts and unsettling transformations.
Each self-contained tale ran its natural course, with Johnson winding up and fading out before a fresh idea staled or a quirky character grated. But while we closed the book impressed by the author’s short-form capabilities, there nevertheless lurked a germ of uncertainty: Could Johnson stretch and sustain her particular brand of magic over the course of an entire novel?
The answer, it turns out, is an emphatic yes. “Everything Under” surprises and beguiles. It is a radical rewrite of the Oedipus myth and a penetrating study of turbulent mother-daughter relations. Once again, Johnson opts for a watery backdrop, this time the networks of canals and rivers around Oxford. It proves a fitting location, for this is a novel filled with mysterious currents and intriguing tributaries, a book whose murky, rippling narrative surface conceals latent secrets and dormant threats.
Its protagonist is Gretel, who lives in solitude and works as a lexicographer updating dictionary entries. She grew up on a houseboat in “the tangle of bank and water and forest” with her “awful, wonderful, terrifying” mother, Sarah. “We were a rock and a hard place,” Gretel reveals. So much so that when Gretel was 13, Sarah abandoned her daughter to foster care.
Gretel searched in vain for her parent and eventually gave her up for dead. Now, 16 years later, after one anxious phone call, mother and daughter are reunited.
The pair try to catch up and fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, Sarah’s memory is not what it was. Gretel reminds her of the special language they used to speak (“you can hear the water effing along … you need some sheesh time … I tell you that you are a harpiedoodle”) and of the enduring menace of the Bonak, the monster that lurks in the waterways.
But then Gretel has hazy recollections of her own, especially concerning the arrival one fateful winter of a runaway boy called Marcus — who started out as Margot and who may well have committed murder.
Throughout the novel people are lost and found, rediscovered and reinvented. Again and again Johnson plays with words, examines gender, grapples with memory and inquires into where our choices spring from — “if decisions were shards from the bombs of our previous actions.” It is, in places, a challenging read, its waters constantly and purposefully muddied, but Johnson makes it worthwhile to those readers happy to make the effort and go with her flow.
“Fen” showed off Johnson’s raw talent. “Everything Under” propelled her into the literary limelight: The 27-year-old became the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It will be fascinating to see just what she does next.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.