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.