Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

★★★★ (4/5)

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bed-side lamp, certain everything we’ve built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.

Hidden beneath a seemingly complex narrative is a hauntingly beautiful story of motherhood, of mortality and dreadful fears that plague lives, of memories burdened by loss, of lives weighed down by guilt and choice, and of lost and found identities.

In Australia they spoke about being beyond the black stump. In America they called it in the backwoods or past the jerkwater. These were words which meant: I do not want anyone to find me. I understood that this was a trait I had got from you. I understood that you were always trying to bury yourself so deep even I wouldn’t unearth you.

This novel is a retelling of the classic Oedipus myth, which chiefly dealt with the perennial argument between determinism and freewill. However this modern day adaptation not only embodies the themes of the original story, but also goes to the extent of binding and extolling the value of nostalgia and curiosity. Personal terrors and guilt are morphed into fearsome, imaginative creations like the Bonak and passed on from one generation to the next. Temptations borne in blood carry onwards, causing havoc and unsettling lives of a myriad of characters.

Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.

The novel not only attains strength from its skeletal story and Daedalian characters, but also from kaleidoscopic locations such as the cottage, the snaking river and its bank, boathouses, a morgue, an office space – all with a profound character of their own rendering power to the beings that walk by or live on them. These settings mystify, gather a life of their own and drive the intangible forces which mould lives of their inhabitants, settlers and nomads alike.

I followed them in and asked how much a room was. Twenty-five pounds, no breakfast but a vending machine at the end of the corridor. I was inside the room before I could think what I might be doing. The smell of petrol through the window. The triangular pattern of yellow and black on the carpet. Someone else’s hair in the plughole of the sink.

The prose is stylistic yet incredibly discomfiting. It cannot and perhaps should not be read in one sitting. But the mesmeric tone and steady unfolding of the story drowns the reader in beauty and brilliance. Reading this novel was akin to being dragged down by a maelstrom, of being caught up in a sudden deluge. Your lungs will burn with water and by the end you will be nothing but flotsam.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out. I
  • I open one of the notebooks I’ve bought and write down everything I can remember. Your words are almost peaceful on the page, somehow disarmed.
  • Everything we remember is passed down, thought over, is never the way that it was in reality. It makes me fraught, restless. I will never really know what happened.
  • The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.
  • That must be where dead ringer comes from, I said, and he looked at me the way people sometimes did when I talked like a dictionary. I wanted to tell him about all the beautiful words I’d thought of during the drive for the places we keep our dead: charnel house, ossuary, sepulchre.
  • I don’t think you ever believed that family was enough of a tie to hold people to one another.
  • There are, between us, decades of bad feeling, a swamp of miscommunication, missed birthdays, the whole of my twenties, a cut-away breast I was not there to witness going.
  • He told you that he dreamed of going blind, of waking and being able to see nothing but night, of seeing a pin moving with speed towards his pupils.
  • Whatever it was I could feel moving towards me would recede until it was gone.
  • The river had a habit of taking sound and swinging it around. Now and then she thought she could hear her mother calling through the undergrowth.
  • I have an awful moment of wondering if I should lie. This is my friend, this is my batty aunt, this is a woman I’m looking after. Anything but the intimacy of that word.
  • The days were not days but blanks in between sleeping. He remembered the way when she was younger Margot had spoken with such certainty about a lack of choice, a determinism. And he’d imagined – this perhaps the worst thing – her going thinking she had no choice, that all along she had been bound to leave them. He could not stand that.
  • When I stopped I felt wrung-out, almost ashamed. Look at how the shape of you moved through anything of significance, eclipsing Marcus, even, nearly, me.
  • She was covered in a thin film of dirt, as if she’d been dug out of the earth. There was, it was true, something root- or bulb-like about her, knobbly knees, limbs bursting from her clothes.
  • People on the river have always been superstitious. The water has a way of making anything that was clear murky.
  • Days did not run straight but ducked forward, swanned back. She came to realise that – all along – nothing she predicted was without consequence. Mugs she had caught before they could fall smashed in her hands hours later.
  • The flames lighting upwards did something to your face and body, spinning time, and it was like sitting across from you the way you were then. Looking at you I could feel something in me beginning to cave in, give way. A resolution or determination; an adultness.
  • Find a town. A train station. Some place that doesn’t even know somewhere like this exists. There are lots of places like that. Everybody forgets. You will too. Anything can be lost if you try hard enough.
  • I wanted to tell you everything that had happened to me but you were a sieve and anything you retained was peppered with holes or formed of debris.

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