James Gault reviews Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
A perennial preoccupation among the novelists I come across on Author Facebook pages seems to be ‘rules’. Rules of grammar, rules of spelling, rules of structure, rules of diction ... It’s as if there was a ‘right way’ to write a novel. Now, I’ve never studied creative writing at one of the new universities (or indeed any university) so that might be why I find myself consistently advocating that ‘rules stifle creativity’ and ‘rules are made to be broken’. And in the author of ‘Everything Under’ I’ve found a like-minded iconoclast, even though she is a creative writing graduate with prestigious credentials.
This is the most imaginative book I’ve read in a while, and it’s also a novel in which the grand guidelines of good fiction writing are turned on their heads. But authors innovate at their peril. If you turn your back on received wisdom, it has to be well worth the candle. Although you whisk the readers off to places they’ve never been before, you still have to satisfy them, amaze them, stimulate them. So, does Daisy Johnson bring it off?
Well yes, by and large she does. But we need to look at all her little innovations and see if they work for the reader. Or at least, if they work for this reader.
There are three threads in the novel, two of them written in the first person and the other in the third. The principle character is a mature lexicographer (more of that later) who, having been abandoned by her mother as a teenager, sets out to her find her. Now, if you write in the first person, it’s logical that the narrator is restricted to only information they could possibly know. Several times, the author has her narrator recounting events and feelings that had me thinking, ‘how the hell could she have known that?’ Does this matter? I think it did spoil the book a little for me, because it damaged the credibility of the narration.
Chronologically, the book starts near the end, when the daughter has already found the mother. So it’s in the form of a memoir, which means the narrator knows what has happened. But, in order to maintain dramatic tension in the plot, I found she had an irritating habit of keeping things from the reader...Of course I know, but I’m not going to tell you just yet. It’s a trap creative by the author’s choice of narrative technique and my personal view is that the novel would have been better if she had managed to avoid that trap.
The whole novel is erected on a foundation made from the love of words. Not only is the main character a lexicographer who delights in exploring words with us, she and her mother share a private language. It has to be dangerous to fill your story with a language totally alien to the reader, but for me the author brings off the challenge really well, and this aspect of the writing added to my enjoyment.
From time to time I had difficulty in following the action. Action scenes need clear and lucid writing if readers are to follow them, and I personally find it annoying to have to read a passage twice just to try and work out what is going on. There was a good reason for the complexity of the writing, but I wish the author had found a better way round the problem.
But, having said all that, this is not a plot driven book. It’s a book about personalities, feelings, innermost thoughts and fears. The characters are all troubled, some of them wandering on the border between sanity and madness. These are characters battling with uncertainties about gender, about sexuality, about family relations, about identity, about their pasts and their futures. It’s a novel that peels away the outer appearance, showing the world from inside the minds and the souls of the characters. If we find their world and their lives confusing, illogical and disturbing, then this is because that is how they themselves see their lives. So don’t obsess on the ‘rules’ when reading this book. Daisy Johnson has concocted a truly appetising omelette, and she’s had to break a few eggs to do it.