“Miracles of stylistic invention,” Kwame Anthony Appiah, the chair of the 2018 Man Booker Prize judging committee, called all six finalists this year. Daisy Johnson—who at 27 was the youngest writer ever to make the short list—pulls off several marvels at once in Everything Under (her debut novel, no less). She coins words, channels outlier voices, and fractures chronology. The result is an uncanny update of ancient storytelling on a primal theme: Are our fates “coded into us from the moment we are born”?
Johnson’s narrator, Gretel Whiting, is a reclusive British lexicographer in her early 30s with a secret past. “Living like demons or animals out where no one could get to them,” she and her enthralling, witchlike mother, Sarah, spent years on a boat moored in the canals of Oxford. And then one day, without warning, Sarah put 16-year-old Gretel on a bus, alone, and vanished. When the novel opens, Gretel has at last tracked down Sarah, now suffering from Alzheimer’s. Neither woman is sure how much of their outlandish history she wants to dredge up. At the same time, neither can forget a river phantom they named the Bonak and a rare visitor to their boat, a girl turned boy who was in flight from parents and dire predictions.
Is escape possible? The question keeps breaking the surface of these mesmerizing pages. Steeped in the Oedipus myth and dark fairy-tale enchantment, Johnson’s world is also indelibly her own.
This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “Cover to Cover: Everything Under.”