REVIEW | Daisy Johnson's Everything Under explores gender roles, memory and the past

Kate Sidley reviews Johnson's powerful and poetic Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel

10 February 2019 - 00:00 By Kate Sidley

Everything Under ****
Daisy Johnson, Vintage, R290

Gretel, a lexicographer, has finally found the mother she's been searching for for decades.

Sarah is not the "awful, wonderful, terrifying mother" of her childhood, the woman who abandoned her as a teenager, but an old woman with dementia.

And neither is Gretel the "wild and beautiful" girl her mother remembers from their isolated life on a houseboat on the rivers and canals of the English countryside, when the two spoke a private language and were stalked by the Bonak, the canal thief, a monster that represented "what we are afraid of".

This mother-daughter relationship forms the centre of this intriguing novel which pieces together their story, and that of Marcus, the strange transgender boy who appeared from nowhere and lived with them for a time. 

The story switches between Gretel's search for her mother, her past and present, and Marcus's story from his point of view. It can be a little tricky to keep track of initially, but it's easier as the tale unravels. 

What roots the shifting realities is a powerful sense of place. Daisy Johnson, who was just 28 when this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize - has a vital, poetic voice. She writes sensuously and unsentimentally about the river and the landscape: the forest floor "itched with woodlice", and, "You chased me with the hose until the ground was so sodden with mud that we fell, were coated as if bulbs just born."

Johnson is drawn to myth and fairy tale, and the oedipal themes of incest, cross-dressing and gender-swapping are central to the book. 

This is not a straight "retelling" of the myth of Oedipus Rex, but a rather complex story that explores gender roles and gender fluidity, as it explores memory, and consequences, and how the past reverberates, inevitably and powerfully, in the present. @KateSidley