We have read Everything under by Daisy Johnson, a young British writer. This is her debut novel after the short story collection Fen that won the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize, the A.M. Heath Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Thanks to Fazi Editore that published her book in Italy last September we had the chance to interview her at Più Libri Più Liberi the Rome book fair dedicated to small and medium sized publishers.
We were really excited and a bit nervous as when meeting a new person. Daisy was very friendly speaking about her book with enthusiasm and it was a really nice moment. To avoid spoilers we won’t reveal much about the plot, focusing mainly on what she told us about the origins of the idea.
Those who often read us are aware of our interest for books that deal with symbols and archetypes and Everything under is definitely one of them. It has a strong psychological base and treats themes such as memory and the legacy from the past while going through the story of three phases of a very difficult relationship between a mother and a daughter, Sarah and Gretel.
Mother and daughter
Sarah a strong woman who lives unconventionally and hardly accepts the role of mother as defined and imposed by patriarchal societies and Gretel her daughter who though at first fascinated by her and able in the future to understand her desire to reach emancipation from the impositions of gender, will have to suffer the consequences of her radical behaviour.
Daisy deals with these controversial and actual themes in a very original manner, by writing a modern adaptation of the Oedipus myth which plays with and transforms gender roles. So, what we find highly engaging of this book is that through all these stimuli it is able to create a narrative space where each element tends to explore, relate to and almost defy its symbolic and archetypical dimension: what does being a woman, a mother, a daughter, a person mean? What are the limits and the potentials that genders roles imply?
The canals of Oxford
In line with this purpose, the setting, which is the canals of Oxford, has a double function. Firstly that of taking us to a peculiar landscape. Daisy called it mystic as it creates a strong contrast with urban areas of the famous academic British city: where everything seems to be controlled and well-defined.
On the contrary the area around the river is quite indefinite and wild: people live unconventionally on boats free from standard lifestyles between water and nature. They form a very insular community that has its own rules and structure of believes. There everything is fluid, connected, free to be transformed. The atmosfere is characterised by the feeling that anything could happen, though remain hidden.
Secondly the setting, putting at the centre the river, highlights water, one of the commonest symbols for the unconscious and circularity of life. An ancient element that is part of us, that has been flowing since the dawn of time, always the same, then it is like if it were full of the memory of past lives.
And it is also like if it were something that has the inner capacity of telling, though in a enigmatic and oracular manner, the truth of things. Its centrality seems to convey the main purpose of the book: reaching a space where as water everything is indeed fluid being both surreal and illustrative, but definitely able to convey something true.
A secret language
Another very interesting aspect of Everything under is that it makes us reflect on the symbolic dimension of language, on its overwhelming imaginative power. Gretel is a lexicographer: a kind of unusual profession though in line with the importance that the secret language she had shared with her mother has had in her life.
First making her feel belonging to something special: a relationship with a mother who she looks up to but later causing her isolation, making her unable to communicate with and be understood by the rest of the world. Daisy told us that she wanted to show how words can be dangerous, going beyond their prime communicative function to assume that of modifying our reality and our perception, not only of the world we live in but also of ourselves.
The value of words
In that sense the choice of Gretel’s profession is paramount as her research is, first of all, a quest for meaning, a way to face and overcome the consequences of a bad parental experience, whose memory had been in part repressed. Also because as adult and independent woman she is not fully able to rejected it, wishing nonetheless to arrive at a dimension of awareness able to balance her being a woman with her being a daughter.
So, as the title implies, here everything speaks about profundity, both about those emotions that we share just for the fact of being humans and about those ones that our gender implies but also about those layers that, as time goes by, we often and unconsciously acquire. Reading Gretel’s story shows us that rediscovering the value of words is one way to recognise and make all these dimensions of our persona get along.
The Oedipus myth
All the references to symbols are presented through a specific language, sharp and characterised by such apparent spontaneity and instinctivity that from the beginning one feels almost overwhelmed by Gretel and Sarah’s relationship. Then one realises how that strength comes from the reference to the Oedipus myth.
In ancient Greece myth through theatre had the function to dispel irrational drives for a community devoted to reason and self-control. Daisy modernising the Oedipus myth has been able to extend this process to the analysis of modern fractured family relationship. The trick was that of re-interpreting its characters whose gender identities she has made fluid, as everything else in the book. In this way she was able to explore the themes of gender roles and gender fluidity.
In fact, in Everything under Daisy was interested in exploring characters who could assume genders that were as fluid as the landscapes that they live in. The analysis of these developments is carried out both on a physical level and on one of awareness and it is represented by a supernatural character: the Bonak.
It lives by the river and in some way it reminds the “daimon” of Jungian psychology: an entity within us that we have to face as it represented an archetypal stage in the process of individuation and self-realisation. So on the one hand the Bonak represents the sum of all our fears but on the other hand it seems to be a sort of guide able to show Gretel how to overcome them and find the way to discover the truth about her self, her social or self-imposed limits and the way to free herself from them.
Reading Everything under
This is a very particular book and we loved it very much. It is not a light reading as to be fully appreciated it requires some knowledge of the cultural reference to the Oedipus myth and the will to participate to a “game of mirrors” and retrace the stages of a story which is presented on three different phases of a very difficult relationship and through a language as much vivid and instinctual as at times cryptic and ambiguous. She told us that this kind of language is not to be consider her stylistic code but rather a tool chosen specifically to tell this specific story where everything is indeed under and, as a river, flows fluidly in constant transformation.
It made us reflect on the potentials and the limits of gender roles and models, on the importance of the experience that we live in our formative years and on the consequence of relations we establish and maintain with our parents. Notwithstanding its profundity Everything under was for us a page-turner, highly recommended as it can really provide an illustrative, consistent and moving image of those fearsome and stimulating processes that are change and the quest towards personal awareness. Highly recommended! Thanks to Fazi and to Daisy for the interview.