SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2018 MAN BOOKER PRIZE
An eerie, watery reimagining of the Oedipus myth set on the canals of Oxford, from the author of Fen
The dictionary doesn’t contain every word. Gretel, a lexicographer by trade, knows this better than most. She grew up on a houseboat with her mother, wandering the canals of Oxford and speaking a private language of their own invention. Her mother disappeared when Gretel was a teen, abandoning her to foster care, and Gretel has tried to move on, spending her days updating dictionary entries.
One phone call from her mother is all it takes for the past to come rushing back. To find her, Gretel will have to recover buried memories of her final, fateful winter on the canals. A runaway boy had found community and shelter with them, and all three were haunted by their past and stalked by an ominous creature lurking in the canal: the bonak. Everything and nothing at once, the bonak was Gretel’s name for the thing she feared most. And now that she’s searching for her mother, she’ll have to face it.
In this electrifying reinterpretation of a classical myth, Daisy Johnson explores questions of fate and free will, gender fluidity, and fractured family relationships. Everything Under—a debut novel whose surreal, watery landscape will resonate with fans of Fen—is a daring, moving story that will leave you unsettled and unstrung.
Johnson's harrowing, singular first novel (following the story collection Fen) retells the myth of Oedipus Rex, putting a modern spin on a familiar tale. Gretel, a lexicographer in her early 30s, has finally been reunited with her mother, Sarah, after a long search. Sarah, now suffering from dementia, is far from the woman who left Gretel to the foster care system 16 years ago. Gretel's childhood prior to that had been carefree but insular, spent primarily with Sarah "a wildish girl and her wilder mother" on a houseboat in the canals of Oxford, where they spoke in a private language and were stalked by the Bonak, a monster that lived in the river by their home and represented, as Gretel defined it, "what we are afraid of." For a time, they'd been joined on the houseboat by a transgender boy named Marcus who had left the only home he'd ever known to escape a prophecy, crafting a new identity in the process. As secrets are uncovered (such as the truth of the prophecy that compelled Marcus to flee his home) and the consequences of past decisions reverberate into the present (such as the choice Sarah makes regarding her first pregnancy, before Gretel), Gretel realizes how close the Bonak they feared has been all along. This story about motherhood and self-determination is a stunning fever dream of a novel.