Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is a modern re-telling of the Oedipus myth buried in twists and turns and interlocking threads. Set against the backdrop of the river and canals of Oxford, the novel weaves in and out of the past and present as it winds its way along the river’s murky waters.
The primary thread involves a now thirty-something Gretel on a hunt for her missing mother after years of estrangement. While searching for clues as to her mother’s possible whereabouts, she dredges up images from the past when she lived on a riverboat with her mother. She harbors a love/hate relationship for her mother—the secret language they shared; the bond they formed while living on the margins of society; and her mother’s eventual abandonment of her when she was a teenager.
There are several tributaries running off from this primary thread, one of which involves a teenager who has run away from home. Another involves Gretel eventually finding her mother and learning she now suffers from Alzheimer. Gretel struggles to cope with her mother’s forgetfulness and erratic behavior, as well as with her mother’s past actions when they sheltered the runaway teenager. And then there is the Bonak—either real or imagined—a mysterious creature lurking in the water or along the riverbank whose haunting presence hovers over the events.
The novel alternates between Gretel’s first-person point of view and a third person point of view. Shifts in time and location are signaled by chapter headings. In addition to the theme of parricide and incest, the novel borrows several elements from the Oedipus myth, including child abandonment, riddles, a dire prophesy, cryptic clues, mixed messages, surrogate families, family secrets, blindness, and mistaken identities, all of which lead to the inexorable conclusion. Tiresias is given a nod when Johnson plays with the concept of fluidity in gender identities and language. He speaks the truth but appears to speak in riddles. Gretel and her mother communicate in a secret language no one else understands. Fairy tale and folk tale elements are also apparent. The name Gretel echoes the fairy tale of the little girl and her brother trying to find home by following bread crumbs; the lives of the river people are steeped in folk tales and superstition.
A lot happens in this novel. At times the interplay of different narrative strands can get confusing, especially during the latter part of the novel. But Daisy Johnson is an accomplished writer. She has served a gripping tale with surprising twists and turns in language and imagery that electrifies. She explores the concepts of fate, free will, destiny, identity, and memory—what we remember and what we choose to forget. She takes us to a culture that lives on the margins of society in the river people, a culture with its own rules and methods of coping. But she is at her best when she conjures up vivid language that brings the omnipresent river and its surroundings to life in a haunting atmosphere laden with darkness, mystery, and fear of the unknown.