Daisy Johnson, Jonathan Cape, 2018
Daisy Johnson’s widely-celebrated collection of short stories, Fen (2017), begin with the alarming transformation of a girl, who has been quietly starving herself all summer, into an eel. In the first story, “Starver”, the eel is released into the river, and this river flows throughout the stories into the empty nothingness of the sea in the collection’s final tale “The Lighthouse”. Johnson leaves us alone, sinking through the ‘lost light all the way down until it was dark enough only to feel the motion of something brushing [the] leg’. In Johnson’s Man Booker shortlisted debut novel Everything Under, we remain submerged, and terrified of what might accompany us beneath. Johnson’s choice of title reflects the breadth of themes explored so sophisticatedly throughout the novel: the mysterious depths of our waters and all that exists under the glimmering surface; that which has been repressed and that which passes undetected in everyday life. The ambitious novel loosely reimagines the Oedipus myth for the present day, relocating it to the run-down canal boats of greater Oxfordshire. An undetermined number of years ago, Margot (who will become Marcus over the course of the novel), sets out to rewrite her destiny after a damning prophecy from her capricious but much-loved neighbour, Fiona. Margot’s path leads her to the childhood home of our narrator, Gretel, who in the present, must pry memories of this period from her wild and unpredictable mother; piece by piece Gretel unravels a past, which is slipping away quickly as her mother’s mind deteriorates. Johnson’s cast of secondary characters are kaleidoscopic in their range, appearing fleetingly, before flickering and fading away. Perhaps most memorable of all is the terrifying but indescribable ‘Bonak’, the monster which inhabits the riverside where Gretel lives. The sinister Bonak poses a very real threat, despite Johnson never making it clear whether it is a literal river-creature or an elaborate metaphor for feelings of pressing fear and discomfort.
Just as the fens themselves seem to be a living, breathing character in Johnson’s collection of short stories, the river in Everything Under has its own unsettling omnipresence; in fact, water sits at the centre of all that Johnson has created so far. Perhaps this resonates with me particularly because I live, practically, on the bank of the meadow-river: I walk it in the early morning and in the half-light, and I too sometimes feel I have seen glimpses of another world through the dense foliage. Just like Johnson’s protagonist, Gretel (who works as a lexicographer), I have ‘sat at the same desk’ for days on end in the disorientating heat of warmest June and ‘dreamed of something swimming in the River Isis’. There is something separate, something removed, about the banks of the river and I have not been able to understand what. Johnson’s novel interrogates whether we are shaped by our surroundings, by our landscape; she subverts the idea that we own houses, that we live in environments, suggesting that instead they live inside us, often undetected, but ever-present. Places linger like an undiagnosed genetic disease silently carried around, ‘something sick inside [you], a moss coating [your] lungs and stomach… something from the river.’ The banks of any modern literary river for me would undoubtedly evoke the memory Virginia Woolf, whose interest in bodies of water throughout her writing is often biographically related to the moment she ended her life by walking into the River Ouse. Fen feels reminiscent of the terrific, but often forgotten about, short story collections by Woolf, or her main creative competition, Katherine Mansfield. Of course, the short story form is demanding in vastly differing ways to the novel, presenting completely different challenges. Johnson tackles the transition from the series of parallel-running streams in Fen, to a single, cohesive plot in Everything Under seemingly without struggle. A strength of Fen is that Johnson’s stories are clearly delineated, but not wholly self-contained. They seep over their banks into each other, flooding their containers just slightly. Everything Under harnesses this strength, the narrative is undoubtedly episodic, fragmented even, but this form seems apt as Johnson’s narrator tries to patch together glimpses of a mostly forgotten past. The constant switching of narrators, place and time gives a sense that every chapter could stand alone, while always reaching out towards each other; our fragmentary reception of the plot reflects Johnson’s numerous reflections on the way that ‘memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles, drawing in and then receding’: we will never get the full story, nobody will.
These spatial concerns, the ways in which we navigate our place in the world, were also at the forefront of modernist fiction. Perhaps this was influenced by a steady rise in commodity culture, or the way the casualties first world war caused a re-evaluation of the importance of the individual in the grand scheme of history. Politically turbulent times often prompt a kind of introspection. Mansfield often wrote letters expressing her delight in all manner of seemingly insignificant and frivolous things: she prided herself in always having ‘a great grip of Life’, allowing her to ‘intensify the so-called small things – so that truly everything is significant’. Her short stories highlight ‘wisps of tissue paper’ on ‘new gloves’, the ‘little satin shoes’, ‘the lights, the azaleas, the dresses, the pink faces, the velvet chairs’, and even the ‘invisible hairpins’ of the girls. In a similar way that one might be tempted to wrongly pigeon-hole Johnson as ‘female’ writer, many critics opposed Mansfield’s exaggerated concern with the feminine and domestic. The ingenuity of this subject matter in both writers’ cases is the relation of the very small to the big, to the vast or inexplicable. Like Mansfield and Woolf, Johnson subtly asks us to interrogate our relation to commodities. She deftly recreates tender flashes of domestic reality by summoning lists of mediocrities: ‘the round buttons on the dishwasher and the washing machine, the straight edges of the shoe horn and the apples from the tree when they were too hard to eat’, the ‘symmetry of traffic lights, the cores of fruits, the hands of clocks’. When missing home, Marcus recalls, not the house itself, but ‘the whole plastic packet of bread, his parents with their glasses marks pressed into the ridges of their noses.’ It is this focus on the mundane which gives Everything Under solidity, a sense of solid physical presence in our time. Marcus clinging to the most pedestrian of things recalls Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall”, in which:
waking from a midnight dream of horror, one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours.
Johnson does not only excel in her depiction of the warmly domestic, but she also never shies away from the imperfect and discarded, that which is often abjected from literature in the name of aesthetics. It is the nauseating descriptions of ‘the smell of petrol through the window’, ‘the triangular pattern of yellow and black on the carpet’ and ‘someone else’s hair in the plughole of the sink’ that creates the cold reality of Johnson’s settings. Gretel’s mother, is particularly fantastically illustrated using this technique. Sarah is an almost mythical character tied down to reality through the grotesque detail of her physical appearance: how Gretel sees her ‘through the eclipsing doors of that bus: [her] upturned forehead’ and ‘the powder on [her] face claggy as limestone, the lipstick barely even on [her] mouth any more’. This effect is employed whenever the magical threatens to overshadow the ‘real’, creating a strange but beautiful juxtaposition of imagery: one feels a train’s ‘breath’ in the darkness as it slides past, girls have the heads of crows, but ‘pink tights streaked with muck’ and ‘fingers dug into the dirt’. Johnson’s most admirable talent is the way she uses figurative language, there is something Eliotian about the way she strings together a comparison: the ending is always a surprise. A face might close ‘in around the words like scaffolding’, the humming beneath your skin reminds her of ‘the electricity of pylons or power stations’ and the eyes of the dead are ‘the filmed white of old photographic reels.’
But Johnson goes smaller still, she is interested in the power of the single word, the single letter. Gretel and her mother have a language of their own recalled from her childhood, and this, juxtaposed with Gretel’s job as a lexicographer (giving words meaning), speaks volumes about the way society assigns meaning to language; ‘I do not believe that language rots through the brain and that I am the way I am because of the language you gave me’, says Gretel, but throughout the novel Johnson investigates how language shapes our lives. Johnson’s interest in words begins with Fen, in which she dedicates multiple stories to the exploration of the power of language: in ‘Blood Rites’ the girls adopt the language of the men that they devour (‘I opened my mouth and heard the words spilling out in a stream I could not see the end of’); and in ‘Language’, words have a terrible physical effect, ‘a single syllable elicting vomiting, sentences starting nosebleeds’. Johnson plays with the way in which we are defined and lead by language, just as humanity is at the mercy of its surroundings, we cannot always control language, rather Johnson seems to suggest that our language controls us. In Everything Under, characters are at war with words, uncomfortable with what they can and cannot say: ‘a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out.’ Like the river, language has the ability to connect or divide people; Johnson’s focus on the power of language feels culturally relevant in an age of character limits and debates about political correctness. We must acknowledge that words, however small, have an influence much greater than their size. Gretel and her mother’s intimate language emphasises the sense that at the banks of the river lies another world entirely. Their complete removal from language is their complete removal both from society and from cultural expectation. Gretel’s mother’s realisation that her language has been eroded over time, speaks to a word’s ability to carry the weight of our past with it. One particular moment stands out:
You glare at me, your lips pulled back over the gums, your fingers ridged. The word you were looking for is egaratise and it means to disappear yourself, to step out of your past. I tell you there is no such word and show you the place in the dictionary to prove it. You seem frightened.
In the creation of their own language, Gretel and her mother manage to ‘egaratise’, to step out of our collective past, they lived a life severed from the binding ties which rule us. One cannot speak without evoking the past, it is impossible. In the only remaining recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, we hear her concerns on the very same subject: words ‘are full of echoes, of memories, of associations’ because ‘they have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’, this being ‘one of the chief difficulties in writing them today.’ This concern seems integral to Johnson’s project, particularly if we consider her unexpected use of language throughout the novel: she seems to counter Woolf’s concern that we must find a way to ‘combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth’. There is something ethereal about the way that Johnson reaches for the most unlikely words, the poetry in it being their complete wrongness. It is a language that, as she so elegantly puts it herself, ‘[tastes] like dust, like gone-off yogurt or burnt toast’.
This strangeness is Johnson’s brand of purposefully underwhelming magical realism: the magic of the mundane, and the mundaneness of magic. Johnson’s book keeps a loose grip on its mythological influences, they seem to hang to the text by a thread, which is for the best: the story goes on without its classical backdrop, it has a home-grown mythology of its own. Fen introduced us to Johnson’s world of English folktale, the ‘fen foxes who’d been people once and grown out of themselves easy as taking off one jumper and putting on other.’ This is in a similar vein to the magic in Everything Under, how Fiona prophesies in small ways, ‘reaching a hand to catch a cup before it fell’ or ‘taking out an umbrella even though it was a warm day.’ Is the unshakeable feeling of foreboding we are prone to before something awful happens really foresight, or do we complete our own prophecies in the telling of them? Johnson’s intelligent observations about identity, landscape, and language, culminate in an over-arching concern with the inescapability of a pre-destined fate which lies behind the original Oedipus myth. ‘The places we are born come back,’ Johnson’s work insists, and though ‘they disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia… if we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin’: we will always be lead back home, the current will pull us along eventually, the river will flow into the sea.
Photo by Sammy Moriarty