The single word that sums up this beautifully written debut novel is “fluidity”. It’s set in a world of waterways; nobody’s character remains fixed from start to finish; gender and memory are as fluid as the waters themselves; the flow of myth and folklore runs through it; and even words themselves slither away from attempts to pin down their meaning.
A hypnotic, mythic, unexpected story from a beguiling new voice. Everything Under is an exploration of family, gender, the ways we understand each other and the hands we hold out to each other – a story that’s like the waterways at its heart: you have to take the trip to understand what’s underneath
What Johnson does capture so well, amid all this, is something not so strange at all: the paranoia of looking back at an imperfect childhood, and wondering what damage it has left the adult with...Johnson wants to have her narrative two ways: now more chillingly psychological, now more viscerally traumatic. She's adept at the one, and sometimes the other, but not quite both at once.
Johnson attacks the Oedipus myth with a taste for gothic horror and a radical vision based on gender fluidity that perhaps only a millennial writer could muster. Her clever layering of ancient and modern makes for a disturbing take on the illusion of free will and the horrible things that women sometimes think and do.
Johnson excels at making psychic phenomena feel visceral; someone wakes up feeling “the last threads of the dream he’d been having tangling about his face”. Even so, you sense right from the first line – “The places we are born come back” – that the novel’s air of gnomic dread depends on syntactical tinkering (a typical phrase runs “there was a shifting, infinitesimal”) as well as sinewy imagery.
But for all the atmosphere of menace, Johnson’s handling of her Sophoclean themes can be remarkably clumsy. Gretel has a frustrating habit of explicitly voicing what is already suggestively implied. And despite the book’s modish cross-dressing, it is also not as radical a reimagining of Sophocles as it might be... But it is still a deeply involving, unsettling novel that pulls the reader into a uniquely eerie yet recognisable world.