Everything Under concerns… well, before we get to what Everything Under concerns, know that this is a novel in the vein of a great many modern novels that seeks to rework an ancient myth in a contemporary setting.
Our narrator is Gretel, who we meet as both a 32 year old lexicographer and a child who grew up on a barge with her mother, Sarah, a somewhat unruly character given to drinking and bringing men home with her. The adult Gretel understandably obsesses with words, dwells overly on her past, and is given to calling and visiting morgues. Why is that, you might ask? Well, we learn that Gretel’s mum left her when she was 16. Via a series of shortish chapters, we see Gretel in her adult life, Gretel looking for her mum, Gretel with (having found) her mum, Gretel at work, Gretel searching, Gretel picking up a dog. Non-linearity is very much the order of the day. But Gretel and her mum are not the only prisms through which we get to view the action. There is also Margot, a vaguely troubled young girl who lives with her foster parents. We see Margot at home, we see Margot running away from home, we see Margot staying on a boat with a blind man, we see Margot befriending a gender fluid neighbour called Fiona.
Whilst Everything Under is undoubtedly complex, the brevity of the chapters and the clarity of Johnson’s writing is such that you don’t need more overt signposting than you get. Learning more about the ways in which the characters relate to each other, arguably knowing the myth that Johnson reworks here, gives away some of the pleasures of the book. Your humble reviewer read without knowing and so the points where various pennies drop was more satisfying than it would, possibly, be otherwise. The complexity also serves as a distraction in some senses from devices that, due to being their prevalence in contemporary fiction, are becoming hackneyed (ie the character with dementia – there needs to be a moratorium on characters with dementia for at least seven years). Johnson can surprise too, though, and a subplot involving a monster concocted by mother and daughter grows in stature throughout the book.
Everything Under is a slow burn, and – at least in the beginning – the very definition of a literary novel (in that certain important questions like, “why are you choosing to look for your mum now?” would rend the delicate fabric of the book, in that whatever suspense there may be is, for the most part, undercut by the fact that early chapters tell you much of what you need to know and certain revelations are telegraphed from a long way off – perhaps that is the point); but it has a power and an energy too, though, and Johnson is an undeniable talent.
Any Cop?: Critical consensus tends to set our teeth on edge and so we’re as surprised as anybody else by the fact that we’re not tearing the book a new one. Johnson gets points for construction, for ambition, for erudition and for heart. She loses points for occasionally over-egging the pudding (using two words or three words when one would do) and she loses points for not entirely trusting her readers (example – she uses the word ‘earworm’ and then explains what it means). But in the great tallying, she comes out ahead and Everything Under gets filed under: very promising debut.