Review: EVERYTHING UNDER by DAISY JOHNSON

This review by Jade-Louisa Pepper (Academy Assistant at Faber Academy) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson shines thanks to its quiet and easy naturalness. Thanks to the crisscrossing of fairy tales and legends and the lingering presence of the eldritch horror – known only as ‘The Bonak’ – throughout the book, that might seem like a bizarre statement to make, but it’s absolutely true. Yes, there is (sort of) a monster and yes, the whole thing is wrapped in the well-worn trappings of a myth, but at its heart Johnson has produced one of the best depictions of the enduring family relationship that I’ve read in recent years.

The novel Johnson has produced is hard to distill into a blurb, let alone plotted out in a review. We move from Gretel, our lexicographer-narrator, coaxing Sarah – the mother who abandoned her as a teen – into telling the truth of her childhood, to Gretel searching for Sarah in hospitals and river locations, to the story of Marcus, and back again, without the signposting of chapter headings or helpful date stamps in the corner. For a lesser writer, that might losing your reader in the twists and turns, but this book somehow manages to keep you spellbound and hanging on until it all clicks together and you feel the full force of Johnson’s writing hit you in the face.

The end result is a mind-bendingly good, eerie and enduring novel that nods to myth and legend without feeling derivative. Everything Under has stuck with me for long enough that I was unwilling to even let the book off my shelf, despite the multiple people that begged to let me borrow it (sorry!) as though losing sight of it would mean I forgot how gorgeously and almost casually Johnson interrogates family, gender, language and ideas of fate and self-determination. It’s my front-runner for the winner of this year’s Man Booker, but if it isn’t at least on the shortlist I’ll be completely shocked.

Review: WASHINGTON BLACK by ESI EDUGYAN

This review  by Iman Khabl (Operations Assistant in Sales at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Esi Edugyan’s third book Washington Black takes the reader on a journey through the most disparate places:  Barbados plantation to Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco.

However, it is the opening pages that stick with you far longer than the troubled voyages around the globe. Washington Black is an eleven year old boy who was born into slavery but despite his young age, he is acutely aware of changes happening around him in the plantation.

Through her hero’s eyes, Esi Edugyan depicts a snapshot of life in the Barbados plantation. Nevertheless her words never drift into romanticizing slavery or turn away from the deeply unsettling annihilation of the human condition under such brutal daily violence.

The most shocking cruelty we witness is not a physical one; it is the robbing of freedom even in death. One does really wish that Edugyan would have stopped a bit longer in Barbados and followed the unfolding of all the lives that surrounded Washington himself.

Sadly we have to depart from Kit, a formidable woman who is the boy’s only parental figure in the plantation, and after only a few pages Washington is now a young man who will embark not only on a physical journey but on a wider exploration of the self and what it truly means to be free.

It’s possible to observe how this wondrous novel echoes in parts the stunning Half-Blood Blues (Edugyan’s  previously shortlisted novel) , as it can be read both as a bildungsroman, exploring its protagonist’s growth through his art, as well as being a much deeper reflection on how to gain freedom from the labels and the scars inflicted by a hierarchical system flawed at its core.

If third time really is the charm, then Washington Black, even as the youngest of three siblings, is more than deserving of bringing an eventual victory to Esi Edugyan.