Everything Under is the story of Gretel, and her mother, Sarah – how they were separated and, sixteen years later, how they were reunited. But it is much more complicated than that.
Gretel was raised by Sarah on a houseboat on a river in England. This is an England of the underworld, that thrives in the shadows, where the murky river water and muddy shoreline promote dark dreams. The inhabitants of this England rely on each other, and take care of their own problems, with no interference from authorities of any kind. This is in England where Sarah is allowed to leave Gretel behind.
We are not privy to much of Gretel’s life after Sarah left her, but as an adult, Gretel goes searching for her mother and finds a woman ravaged by dementia. Despite their years apart, Gretel begins to care for her mother, and Sarah in turn reveals some of the hard truths of their difficult life.
As we move back and forth through time to Gretel’s childhood (The River), her search for Sarah (The Hunt), and her adult life with Sarah (The Cottage), we are introduced to Marcus, a young man who lived briefly on the boat with Gretel and Sarah. Marcus has a harrowing story of his own. Meanwhile, we meet Margot, who has also been abandoned as a child and found on a forest path by a couple who is childless but desperate to be parents.
Mythology looms large as children are turned out to flounder in the woods, Margot’s ill-fated future is predicted by Fiona (the Oracle), and the myth of Oedipus rears its ugly head. Daisy Johnson is a master of magical realism, as she links present-day England to the profound drama of myth. Throughout the story she weaves in the terror of “the Bonak”, a creature from the minds of Sarah and Gretel that comes to represent everything that we fear.
This novel is mesmerizing although at times difficult to follow. To make things more complicated there are also two Gretels, and two characters who change genders during the course of the story. However, as the plot starts to come together, you will have those “a-ha” moments, made all the more satisfying because the story is so complex. If you like a bit of darkness in your stories, I highly recommend Everything Under.
For other reading suggestions visit Richmond Public Library’s website at www.yourlibrary.ca/goodbooks.