This was my third book from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the one I have enjoyed the least so far. At just 277 pages it’s the shortest novel on the shortlist, but, I’m afraid to say, for me, the end could not come soon enough. At just 28, Daisy Johnson is apparently the youngest author ever to grace the shortlist, and her achievement is remarkable considering this is her debut novel (she has had a short story collection published previously). There is no doubting her talent: the concept of the book is ingenious (a modern re-telling of the Oedipus myth) and her prose is as fluid and alive as the river that dominates the book. However, for me, there was something in the execution that was missing.
Gretel is a 32 year old woman living alone in Oxford. She works as a lexicographer, a natural career for her as her life has been dominated by words – their invention, their use, and, perhaps also, their lack. She had an unconventional upbringing with an eccentric mother on a canal boat. In her early years, Gretel and her mother developed their own language, a succession of private words for things for which a single expressive term did not exist, for example “sheesh time” refers to a desire to spend time alone, and “Bonak” will come to mean something to be afraid of, something threatening.
Gretel has been estranged from her mother since she was 16 years old. It is remarkable that this young woman has managed to make any sort of life for herself at all, given the background which we come to learn about. But Gretel has always known that she would be reunited with her mother, either dead or alive. For years she has occasionally contacted morgues and hospitals to ask if any unclaimed, unidentified older women have been admitted. One day, a morgue assistant says that, in fact, yes, a middle-aged woman fitting Gretel’s description had been admitted. Gretel believes this is it, and she goes off fully expecting to find the body of her mother. She is disappointed to find that it is not, but it sets her off on a quest in search of her mother.
This is where it gets confusing, because each of the eight chapters is divided into sections headed “The Cottage”, “The Hunt” and “The River”. The novel jumps back and forth between different times – the ‘cottage’ sub-chapters refer to Gretel caring for her mother at her home (she found her). Sarah, the mother, either has dementia or a serious mental illness so the circumstances are challenging to say the least. The ‘hunt’ sections refer to Gretel’s search for her mother, and the ‘river’ sections look back on the past, to Gretel’s past, her childhood, and Sarah’s life before Gretel was born.
None of it proceeds in a linear fashion, which is fine, and normal for modern novels, but within the sub-stories (ie, cottage, river and hunt) there is jumping back and forth in time, so you need to be on your toes…which I was not, so I found it difficult to follow. Threaded through the ‘hunt’ and ‘river’ stories is the story of Margot/Marcus, a transgender child/adolescent who was the child of Roger and Laura, a couple Gretel meets in her search for her mother. Marcus was born Margot, and grew up as part of Roger and Laura’s family until one day he/she disappeared without explanation or further trace, a fact the couple have never come to terms with. There is a connection with Sarah that only becomes apparent much later.
I knew before I read the book that this novel is a re-telling of the Oedipus myth – in Greek mythology, Oedipus, you may know, inadvertently killed his own father and married his birth-mother, Jocasta, who then hanged herself when she discovered the truth. Even when you know the ending to the Oedipus story, it is difficult to see how Everything Under is going to end. It wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I had the a-ha moment. In that sense it’s an extremely clever novel, brilliantly conceived, and I felt that perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention, but, in a way, that’s the point: I wasn’t paying enough attention because the book rather lost me as a reader. I found the narrative voice confused and confusing, the handling of past and present was not done as well as it might have been, in my view, and this was frustrating. There have been some comments from the Man Booker judges this year about editing, and how some of the books on the longlist could have been much the better for being shorter. This is clearly not the case with a shortish novel like this one, but I did feel that it needed a jolly good edit, a reordering, and I’m afraid I did think there was quite a bit of chaff (I still don’t understand the significance of the dog that Gretel finds!)
If you are interested in the Man Booker and in literature generally, I think this is an interesting read, to see how the modern novel is evolving, and to see how an ancient story might be handled in a modern setting. (I think a lot of popular soaps handle some of the same themes pretty successfully!) I found this novel somewhat laboured in its adherence to the myth and it sometimes got itself in knots. For me.
What has been your favourite/least favourite of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker?
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