The key bookend phrases, and central conceit of this, Daisy Johnson’s modern myth river offering, contend that ‘the places we are born come back (to us)’. If it is intended as self-evident literary truth, then the work is with watery foundations from the outset. Maintaining the theme, the entirety of the piece is convoluted, confusing, and soggily constructed: there is the definite illusion to the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel (the narrator is named Gretel, there is the undertow of characters being lost and seeking to find, there is the explicit line in Johnson’s wrapping up that is ‘Words like breadcrumbs’); there is a creature, which might be real or which might be a psychological manifestation, or both (the Bonak), stalking the storyline, under the water or hidden on the banks; there are other characters who are male but female, or female but male; Johnson sways in the current of time, switching and floating, but the whole is a silted affair.
Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, 2018) concerns three main characters: Gretel, who we meet as an adult and as a somewhat feral thirteen year old who, at that time has been living on a boat on the river all her life with her unorthodox mother, Sarah; Margot, who is also Marcus, is a little older than Gretel and walks the river paths, chancing on the pair for a short while. There is very little in the way of secondary characterisation: Charlie appears briefly, a river man who once fathered Sarah’s child but who she left, taking the baby with her and who Margot/Marcus later comes across; Laura and Roger, who are not river people, but who are Margot/Marcus’s parents; Fiona, their one-time next door neighbour, a woman who was a man and whose sole purpose in the story seems to be as messenger of a prophecy that Margot/Marcus will murder her father. Margot, before she decides to identify as Marcus, is encouraged by Fiona to leave home.
There is a mirroring of this leaving theme in Gretel’s life. All she has ever known, as a teenager, is an isolated existence living on a boat moored at one spot with her mother, inventing words that only the two of them know the meanings of and trading with other boat people, living off this and whatever they can catch from the river or the banks and forest around them. Suddenly, however, Gretel is abandoned by her mother: she’s put on a bus and doesn’t see her again for another sixteen years when she goes searching for her. It is a wonder though that it takes the best part of the book for Johnson to explain that Sarah is still along the river, being a river person as she is, drawn to it and comfortable there, and how is it that a character like this could reasonably be anywhere else? So the tableau is gradually unfolded: Gretel seeks her mother in the present; in the past, Margot/Marcus has run away from home and chances on the woman and her child; Laura and Roger maintain a background seeking for the lost Margot/Marcus and, in turn, are sought by Gretel in the present because she discovers a lead to them that might point back to the past; Fiona flicks in and out of the narrative but serves no other purpose than being an extended narrative device; Charlie serves to become a plot twist. In amongst it all, the Bonak, that which is feared, perhaps, or that which is coming, maybe, lurks beneath it all. In truth, the Bonak is a frustratingly insubstantial entity. Johnson’s writing seems to settle on one resolution and then shifts into another before flowing back again.
In the flipping of time, Sarah is shown in various lights: she is initially met as the older, degenerative mother, already found by the adult Gretel and returned to the latter’s isolated cottage because she does not know what else she can really do with her, not particularly wishing to lose her again. Sarah is also written as her younger self, at the same age roughly as the adult narrator latterly is, living on the boat, independent, fiery, somewhat hewn from the riverbanks, as it were. Johnson provides Gretel with a nominal profession, an initially office-based lexicographer working on dictionary definitions. The initial hope in the reading that this might all lead to an examination of words is rather wasted, however: Johnson does not extend this link beyond the occasional reference to early isolated mother-child language. In the search for Sarah, Gretel simply decides not to attend her place of work for weeks, having a brief communication with an understanding employer, and thus the fictive suspension of disbelief begins to erode.
Apart from the fluid drift of story-telling hitherto described, the greater flaws of Everything Under lie in maddeningly ill-considered oversights and in the technical skills of writing. In the first instance, for example, Gretel takes under her wing a runaway dog while searching for her mother, and she stays in a Travelodge room, which the dog unaccountably finds its way into. Nothing is said. Gretel tracks down suburban Roger by way of a dubiously easy giving of information by a mechanic he once left an online review about. Later, she burns a car by dousing it in petrol. The spot is isolated but there is hardly a shrug in the story-telling. Small details alter the fictive flow. Of greater concern, however, is the author’s writing style. Littered throughout the entirety of the text are continually truncated sentences, thought processes chopped into pieces by unnecessary full stops. In addition to this, Johnson chooses to use no speech marks for her dialogue, which can work but not so when there are instances whereby it is not sufficiently clear on the first reading whether what has just be read is dialogue or exposition. Lastly, on a technical note, there are many instances of similes dissolving the flow by the simple omission of the initial ‘as’: for example, as in ‘Her dreams before she’d left had been [as] neat as bus timetables’. We might begin to assume, charitably, that stylistic choices are in play, but with irritating recurrence we might then begin to wonder if the writer is just not technically aware. The disruption of the fictive flow steadily erodes any concern we might have for the characters, the storyline, the undoubted attempt to imbue the whole with something that lies beneath.
Ultimately, although there is an appreciation that the author has written with the intention of examining themes of leaving, being left, seeking, relating, that which we fear, pasts and fates, myth, belonging to or being owned by places, the crumbs dropped in the waters of this tale simply sink. There is no reader’s care for the characters and for an untangling of the lines of thinking. In her final page, within her acknowledgements, Johnson writes a short section in which she relays the brief tale of a gift given to her. It is a gift with her own words written on it, words which remind her that she thinks her work in progress, this book, ‘is going to be really . . . good’. It takes a great deal of effort to write a book, it is appreciated, but a baby — such as a book is — should also be taken more care of.