Daisy Johnson’s debut, Fen, was a collection of startling short stories, all set in the liminal and often downright-odd flatlands of East Anglia. In a place where the rivers have been engineered to run above the shrinking black earth, where the edges between sky, water and land seem ambiguous and ever-changing, Johnson merged myth and folklore with the everyday, the seemingly solid. From ditches, dykes, marsh and mire, she conjured a cast of bone-crunching women, the living dead, a lovesick house and, of course, a girl who stopped eating and turned into an eel. Through her writing, the uneasiness of the land leached into brick and mortar, blood and bone.
In Everything Under, Johnson’s first novel, the strangeness of the fens may have been swapped for the canals, countryside and towns of Oxfordshire, but the importance of place – of belonging – remains. As does the sense of the uncanny. Here the fantastical and the folkloric take centre stage: the plot itself is a reworking of classical myth (to say which one would spoil too much) that is projected onto a modern England, which although easily identifiable feels somehow woozy and dream-like. Johnson’s characters again push at the fabric of reality, whether it is the clairvoyant, the blind bargeman, the strange baby in the bin or the widespread fear of the canal-dwelling “Bonak”, who steals children and animals.
The novel opens with the narrator, Gretel, a lexicographer, trying to communicate with her mother Sarah, who abandoned her 16 years before. Yet any attempts to make sense of a life, which Gretel believes is key to her own, is made more difficult by Sarah’s apparent dementia – “the memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.”
The story gradually unfolds as Gretel explains how she tracked her mother down one month before, recounting a journey that winds over road, railway and canal, while also treading a path through her own memory: taking in a childhood on the edges of society and life on a houseboat she shared with her mother and – for one winter at least – a strange, lonely boy called Marcus. As Gretel talks, other narratives emerge. Backstories and tangents, tributaries to the main flow, bubble to the surface and Johnson slips skilfully between characters and times. Marcus’ history is revealed in tantalising snippets, the plot slowly thickening as the truth swirls and gathers like flotsam at the canal’s locks.
Like Fen, Everything Under is otherworldly and captivating, but it is also gratifyingly complex. Themes of love, sex, language, loss, belonging and becoming are all tied together to create a book that is as beautifully human as it is delightfully strange.
Everything Under, published by Jonathan Cape, is out now.