Apr 07 2019

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Oh gosh, how to properly review this book without spoilers? It doesn’t help that the library copy I borrowed told me exactly what myth the entire narrative was hung from before I’d even turned on my Kindle. Let me just go over the synopsis before delving into my (likely unpopular) opinions.

Gretel is a 32 year-old lexicographer searching for the mother who abandoned her half her life ago. Sarah raised Gretel on the river Isis, in a boat house, educating her on encyclopedias but also wrapping her in made-up words of their own. They and their fellow river people were haunted by a Bonak, as the two women called it, a nightmare creature that rose up out of the water to steal game and children. Gretel’s search for Sarah involves looking for Marcus, the boy who lived with them for a brief time while they were hunting the Bonak. Along the way, she meets Roger and Laura, parents whose teenage daughter ran away shortly before Marcus showed up in Gretel’s life.

The family relationships were well-depicted, from Gretel dealing with the aging, demented Sarah, to the toll that waiting for Margot has taken on Roger and Laura. Everything Under was also a fascinating look into the life of people who’ve rejected the trappings of modern civilization, not trusting the police and happy to live rough if need be. It reminded me a lot of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet tho wasn’t, IMO, as successful a book overall. For the most part, I enjoyed the prose and the way bits of the myth were adapted and strung throughout the text, but I did feel that things got a bit self-consciously literary in places. And speaking of Fionas, I did very much feel for the fictional character in EU, which brings me to my spoilertastic discussion.

I’m not usually sensitive to instances of the “bury your gays” trope but holy shit, people! All the queer characters go insane, die or both, while the presumed straights just go about living their lives. I mean, LITERALLY ALL OF THEM. I don’t need my protagonists to have happy endings, but when all the minorities in a book do nothing but suffer, I have to give that book some serious side eye. Sure the rest of the cast isn’t exempt from hardship, but you cannot tell me that any of their fates are more bleak (granted, Charlie does get the short end of the stick there but he’s just the one character, who is also, essentially, a plot device.) I get that Daisy Johnson was trying to update the myth for the modern era, and here’s a proverbial star for trying, but come on. Representation isn’t enough if the end result is still othering.

And while I appreciated the metaphor throughout, you can’t tell me that the Bonak was anything but a fucking alligator.

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