Thursday, March 11, 2021

Book 275: Everything Under


"But I love you, you say to me in the supermarket, and I want to say it back but I can't, not yet; I can't give you that. And I want to tell you that I think we made it. Whatever it was that pressed through the cold, calm waters that winter, that wrapped itself around our dreams and left its clawed footprints in our heads. I want to tell you that it might never have been there if we hadn't thought it up."

Dates read: November 11-14, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Sometimes I feel like all the old versions of myself are fitted inside me like nesting dolls. The child I was, and teenager, and young adult aren't gone, they're just each obscured by the next layer I added. But they're never far away. I've never lost that excitement over going to the local ice cream shop in my hometown, it makes me feel like a kid again. Feeling socially rejected brings out that high-schooler who never felt cool enough. Sometimes just being back in my childhood home brings out the snotty teenager. If I get too much new information too quickly and feel overwhelmed, it takes me back to law school and how scary it was to not just instinctively "get it" like I always had in classes.

Gretel, in Daisy Johnson's debut novel Everything Under, seems to live a very normal life. She's a lexicographer in her early 30s, living alone in a normal home in England. But her childhood was very different than you might expect: she and her mother, Sarah, were river people who lived on a houseboat. There was no school, so Sarah taught her out of encyclopedias and dictionaries while they moved around, constantly wary of a threatening presence they call "the bonak". Briefly, a young man called Marcus stayed with them, but he mysteriously vanished. When Gretel was sixteen, her mother abandoned her and never returned. Gretel has never stopped looking for her, and frequently calls local hospitals and morgues in case she's turned up somewhere. Then, one day, she gets a call that leads her to an area near where she grew up and the pieces of her past start coming together.

We learn that she finds Sarah, and brings her home to care for her as something isn't right. And we also learn about Marcus, and what brought him into their world. The resulting story is a modern-day twist on the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus. It's difficult to share more about the book, both in an effort to avoid spoilers and because the book does not lend itself to being related straightforwardly. It's told from multiple perspectives, and across multiple timelines in a way that isn't always easy to understand.

This book is a very impressive debut in some respects. Johnson's prose is confident and thematically rich. The atmosphere and imagery is lush and vivid. Water, its depths and the way those depths can hide things, runs throughout the book (yes, that pun is deliberate). So too does the theme of language, the importance of the act of naming. I loved that the thing Gretel and Sarah are trying to flee, the source of their dread is called "the bonak". It just sounds like something that goes bump in the night. And, like the play that inspired it, it spends a lot of time playing with the idea of fate. How much do we make our own choices, as compared to being helplessly buffeted by the winds of circumstances that surround us? There's a sequence in the book where a woman, touched with foresight, helps avert crisis situations...only to find that every bad thing she thought she prevented just came back around in the end, that's so poignant that it remained in my head long after I closed the book.

As promising as the book might be, though, there are some major issues that kept me from being able to properly enjoy it. It manages to feel both overstuffed and underbaked in under 300 pages. The plot structure was often confusing, making it difficult to figure out what timeline the book is meant to be on, who is referring to who when they use pronouns. Though it was clearly meant to have the heightened drama of an ancient tragedy and not be strictly realistic, some of the decisions Johnson made for her characters were so jarringly odd that they didn't work. A few of the direct callbacks to the original Oedipus play, like the riddle book, felt shoehorned in, and it sometimes seemed like she was leaning both on our cultural knowledge of the play and her own evocative language to kind of "do the work" for her in a sense. I longed for an editor that could have shaped what is a powerful narrative by a gifted writer into something cohesive that really landed the big emotional punches it was swinging, but it missed as often as hit for me. This is a difficult book to read, featuring child abandonment and incest, and I would not recommend it for younger readers. Even for mature ones, though, it might prove unpleasant, and I found it off-putting enough that I can't affirmatively recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Til The Well Runs Dry

Two years ago, I was reading: Man's Search For Meaning

Three years ago, I was reading: Court Justice

Four years ago, I was reading: City of Thieves

Five years ago, I was reading: American Gods

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