I have previously received PR products from Penguin, who own Vintage.
TW: incest, suicide, dementia.
This is probably the most confused I’ve ever been about a book I’m reviewing on my blog. I, do, however, feel like I have quite a lot to go into here, so please strap yourself in for this one! It’s not a book for everyone, because of the trigger warnings above. It incorporates a retelling of the Oedipus myth, hence the incest, which is definitely not a topic everyone wants to read about. It doesn’t actually take up a major part of the book though, so it is something you can almost skip over.
First, let’s start with what I enjoyed about Everything Under. The writing style was great, particularly for a debut. Daisy Johnson was about 27 or 28 I think when this was written, and I’m excited to see what she might do next. It flowed really well, and I did speed through this book. The writing kept me engaged, and pulled me in from the start. It’s no secret that a good writing style is one of the top things I like to see in a book, and I can forgive a lot of sins if the writing is good, because I can get rather blinded by it. The cover of this book makes me think of a river (which it turns out is appropriate), and the writing did feel somehow like water floating, if that isn’t too poetic/pretentious to say.
The characters Johnson gives us are well-developed and mostly super interesting. Sarah, the mother of the story, who in one of the timelines is suffering from dementia, and I found her character incredibly compelling. Across the different timelines, we see three different versions of Sarah. One as a young woman, one as a mother, and finally, as an old woman wracked with dementia. Dementia is not something I have experience with, or something I’ve seen represented in books before, so I don’t want to speak to the accuracy or quality of representation. As a character, however, I loved Sarah. The main character, Sarah’s daughter Gretel, seemed slightly flat compared to Sarah. Having said that, I think her character worked well. While she was the protagonist, she wasn’t really who the story was about. The story was more about her relationship with her mother, and her attempts to recover and understand her childhood.
This journey that Gretel embarks on, to find her estranged mother and finally understand her childhood was, for me, what this book was about (and what it should have been about, but more to come on that). I love books that explore family dynamics, especially dysfunctional ones. Gretel’s search for her mother is motivated both by familial love, and by a desire to understand her childhood. Gretel’s lack of childhood memories is not explored really within the plot, though over the course of the book she does unlock many of her memories. I couldn’t really tell if Gretel’s memories were lost as a normal part of growing up and pushing old memories to the back of her mind, or if it was supposed to be representative of a trauma response. I think the latter could have been a really interesting area to explore, especially when compounded with her mother’s dementia and inability to remember when they are reunited.
And that brings us onto my problem with this book. There was too much going on. It’s only about 250 pages, and within that we get several different timelines. There’s Sarah’s youth, Gretel searching for Sarah, flashbacks to Gretel’s youth, Gretel and Sarah after being reunited, and Margot’s timeline which coincides with Gretel’s childhood. If the four different timelines/narratives wasn’t enough to get confusing, there also feels like multiple stories in one being told. On the one hand, there’s the storyline of Gretel and Sarah’s relationship, which I really enjoyed, and then there’s the Oedipus plot. The Oedipus plot felt forced into the story, and was underdeveloped, and made little sense. After realising what has happened, the Oedipus character kills themselves, and it’s unclear whether the mother ever truly understands what happened, so there’s a build up, and a reveal, and no real pay off.
In this Oedipus plotline, we meet a transgender woman named Fiona with prophetic powers. The transgender representation was great to see, and there’s also another character who embodies a persona of the opposite gender (though it wasn’t clear to me if this second character was transgender or not), so I did enjoy that the book embraces gender fluidity and identities outside of cisgender ones. However, Fiona’s character didn’t seem to make much sense in the context of the book, or fit in. Her whole place in the book functioned solely to push forward the plot for the main characters by making the Oedipus prophecy (and of course, in trying to prevent it, leads to its happening). She then, for some reason, refuses to share what she knows about the disappearance of Margot. This refusal isn’t really explained, but from a craft perspective, her refusal was necessary to prevent the reveal from happening too soon.
So, overall, this book wasn’t everything I’d hoped it would be. As a debut novel, however, it was really interesting. I love the folklore feel to it, and the mystery and atmosphere Johnson creates is impressive. I can’t wait to see what Johnson does next, but this book either needed to be simplified, or much longer so it could be fully explained.