This month, Upper Norwood Reading Group met to discuss Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. The story revolves around the search of a woman for her estranged mother, piecing together memories from her childhood living on a river-barge on the Thames. The mother, Sarah, and daughter, Gretel, shared a private language of made up words, centring around the Bonak: a word meaning “what frightens us” – at first in a generic sense, but which comes to manifest as a terrifying long-limbed creature rising up out of the murky river.
In the course of her research Gretel discovers that a mysterious stranger, who by the time he came to stay with them on the boat was a man named Marcus, was in fact her half-sister and, furthermore, was guilty of a terrible crime. This crime, and subsequent sexual liaison with her mother was foretold, in the manner of the myth of Oedipus, by Fiona, a trans woman with the gift of future sight – who ends the novel psychologically destroyed and living in Marcus’ adoptive parents’ shed.
The river is held up throughout as a place beyond the normal order of things – you don’t get police or child services down here, says Sarah – a “mapless place” where you can hear the “sound of dead men moving in the forest”. Some readers felt that the magical elements in the story were too unrestrained and ended up causing serious problems for the reader’s suspension of disbelief. How old is Marcus when he runs away from home and ends up in bed with his birth mother? How is it that Marcus’s father bumps into him days after his flight, having evaded his family, who actually live on the river, for over a decade? Why does Fiona have to live in the shed, can’t she sleep in a bed?
Other readers held up the part of the river as the door to the inexplicable beyond, the role of magic in the story and particularly prophecy, as reasons not to dwell too long on continuity. Spun in a gloomy poetic prose, macabre images swimming into view like Fiona’s visions, one thing the book is definitely not trying to be is realistic, and some argued that it was unreasonable to have that expectation of it. Needless to say, for others it went too far.
The use of language drew a lot of comment from readers, some of whom found the lyrical style of the book beautiful. “She felt the cold tapping of fear again, drawn tight across her temples, over her chest” was a typically involving phrase. Other metaphors missed their mark – Gretel’s claim that something her mother said ‘made her gums ache’ was met with confusion by some, and the description of a garden “sloping down like a lathe” was not felt to meet some basic requirements of sense. Some readers also found that the staging of the story across three, possibly four, separate timelines made it hard to keep up with.
For the reasons above it was remarked in jest that the book perhaps rewarded being read quickly. There was a general sense that there was a lot going on and not really the space to do justice to the book’s many themes. The idea of a private language, and its correspondence to the disjunct between the river and mainstream society, was not played out; the vanquishing of the Bonak jostled for space alongside the retelling of Oedipus. That the book failed to really meet its potential was possibly down to the want of a judicious editor, some thought.
Nonetheless, Everything Under secured some high marks from some of our readers – the final score was 3/10, reflecting a range of 0 to 7.
Will, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group