The publisher’s blurb for Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson, makes this book sound a lot more straightforward than it is when you actually sit down to read it. Yes, the novel features a lexicographer named Gretel who had an unorthodox upbringing with a mother who eventually abandoned her. Yes, the book is filled with a unique vocabulary that makes us wonder about the opacity of unknown languages. But many of the chapters leave us as adrift is Gretel is because we, like our protagonist, are trying to solve a mystery with only an Alzheimer’s sufferer, an alcoholic maybe-oracle, and a lot of repressed memories to work with. This is definitely a book for readers who like a challenge.
Everything Under begins with a daughter who has just found her mother after sixteen years. Her mother, Sarah, has clearly been living rough, although she must have gotten treatment for breast cancer at some point. Sarah is losing herself to Alzheimer’s and, at this point, is having a lot more bad days than good. Gretel struggles along with a mother who still bolts for the open every chance she gets. Gretel takes an extended leave of absence from her job working on an unnamed English dictionary to care for Sarah—and also try and figure out what happened during a long ago summer when she saw her mother having sex with a drifter named Marcus. Something about that summer unsettles Gretel and she can’t rest until she figures out what it is.
The riddle of who Marcus is and the cloudy mystery that is Sarah’s past take center stage. This story—with classical roots for sharp-eyed readers who spot the allusions—is entertaining and thought-provoking. If I had know that this is what Everything Under was actually about, I don’t think I would have picked it up. The myth this book alludes to is not one of my favorites; I never was a big fan of Greek myths*. I wanted another novel about a lexicographer and reflections on language and words. I whine, but it’s not fair to judge a book for not being what I wanted it to be.
As for what Everything Under actually is, I found it to be a murky, dreamlike-but-more-reminiscent-of-nightmares tale of family secrets. The lack of any geographic or temporal markers makes this story seem timeless, as does its themes of difficult parents who have bigger, more complicated lives than their children and references to Greek mythology. This is not an easy book to read, not just because of the themes but because of the way timelines jumble, invented words obfuscate, and names shift around. Readers who are intrigued enough to pick this book up may feel the need to take notes, like a detective trying to pin down witnesses’ statements.
I realize that all this may make the book sound poorly written, but that is definitely not the case here. This book is well written. It just doesn’t make things easy for a reader. Its resistance to easy answers just gives readers that much more to think about.
* No more hints. If you’re interested in reading this book, you’ll have to work out for yourself which myth this book uses.