by Daisy Johnson
‘The water has a way of making anything that was clear murky. You think I haven’t seen things out there? When it’s misty or on days so hot the air gets wavy I think I’ve seen things I left behind, never thought I’d see again.’
This is water to drown in. It sits adjacent to the tidal flow, bordering on forgotten. Unknown bodies move in its stagnant depths, startled by shadows and glimpses of myth, haunted by dreams of sunlight and clarity. Here, everything is obscured; character, motive and emotion thread their way through the shallows in a blur of muscle and memory, evolving across various timeframes. Fear and loathing are constant companions and hope little more than the occasional eddy, a final diminishing line of wake from distant, possibly imagined, movement.
A troubled woman, Gretel, maintains an internal relationship with her mother, Sarah, who abandoned her daughter years before. Gretel flirts with the possibility of finding her again. Visits are made to morgues. Old flats they lived in together trigger memories. Her mother repels as much as she attracts, pleases, teases and damns with equal measure. Sarah is almost a grotesque, burdened with a pathological cruelty she doesn’t understand, a sadness that comes with age and the horror of knowledge gained by unfavourable experience. At times larger than life, but often no more than a ghost on the margins, Sarah has simple, earthly wants and unerringly selfish needs that rarely chime with whoever crosses her path. In alternate chapters, surrogate parents and companions – you would struggle to call them friends – vie with gender issues, lost opportunities and sleights that wound beyond surface scars. Weaving in and out of focus are missing animals, a fantastical river-dwelling creature, communication breakdowns, lust, loss and murder.
‘In your notebook you draw a picture of a boat, faces in the square windows, the path running beside it like a road. You hold it up to show me. On the path there is a scrawled figure with her arms raised, holding the cylindrical shape of a wrapped child.’
The misdirection is sharp and sour. Fluidity is gained not only from the water, but from sexuality, language and the narrative. It matters less that the key protagonists exist than it does their search for resolution carries you with it. Words mean little, then everything; are made flesh, then dissolve into rumour. They are invented and used to bond, or thrown into conversation to break. You are not invited to claim ownership but offered multiple windows into a shifting illusory set of lives that may or may not untangle to anyone’s satisfaction.
Seen slant, Everything Under‘s refusal to furnish the reader with a clear path to understanding mirrors the bête noire, turn-of-the-century American Psycho. Where Easton Ellis used hyper-real shock and awe to throw shade on a society pivoting towards a Rome-style collapse from within, Daisy Johnson’s fog-bound maze delights in throwing curveballs on a smaller, human level, arriving at key points from obtuse angles and causing you to question whose point of view you’re seeing events from, and whether you can trust what it is they are experiencing. No-one here is as cold or unlikeable as Patrick Bateman, but it’s difficult to pin your allegiance to Gretel, Sarah, Marcus or Fiona. There are no heroes here. Whilst you may sympathise with them, they are not bound by plot or deadline or a willingness to hand to you on a plate the guts of the story – you page turn unconsciously, adrift on the river swell, part of the narrative like driftwood. Are their journeys real or imagined? The things they see in the corner of their eye may exist. They may not. The same may be said of the things they hold in their heart.
‘We come to a stalemate and do not speak at all. Move around one another in strict circles of ownership: the sitting room is yours, I take the bedroom and the kitchen; the bath belongs to you. Talking would mean that we would have to discuss it and we will not do that. What you did.’
Water, memory and family. All three can suck you in and spit you out. Whilst in this book’s thrall, the rest of the world is as cloudy and undefined as the (beautiful) words on the page are distinct. You emerge, breathing hard and thankful, and the world is ever-so slightly different.
You should also read Fen, the wonderful book of short stories that preceded Everything Under, available from Hive and published by Vintage.
Quotes used with permission of the author.
Published by: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-1-91070-234-5 First Hardcover Edition