Man Booker Prize

Childhood mysteries in mother-daughter tale

With her debut novel Everything Under (above), Daisy Johnson (right), 27, is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
With her debut novel Everything Under Daisy Johnson (above), 27, is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.PHOTO: POLLYANNA JOHNSON

Who: British author Daisy Johnson, 27, the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She has a master's in creative writing from the University of Oxford and is the author of the short story collection Fen (2016). Everything Under is her debut novel.

EVERYTHING UNDER

Vintage Publishing/Hardback/ 264 pages/$30.94/Books Kinokuniya

4/5

"Children are supposed to leave their parents. That's the way it's supposed to be," seethes Gretel, the protagonist of Everything Under, who is abandoned by her mother, Sarah, when she is 16.

Johnson stretches her imagination with this fresh, modern re-telling of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus, although to reveal exactly how she does it would be too much of a spoiler.

After 16 years of calling hospitals, police stations and morgues in a bid to find her mother, Gretel eventually finds her afflicted with dementia.

Although Gretel, who is now working as a lexicographer, says that she does not demand "answers" from her mother, she inadvertently finds them when she tries to make sense of Sarah's undoing.

Memories of a childhood spent with her mother on a houseboat begin to resurface.

She begins to have suspicions about Margot, or Marcus, a fluid-gender runaway who stayed with them for a season.

With her debut novel Everything Under (above), Daisy Johnson (right), 27, is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
With her debut novel Everything Under (above), Daisy Johnson, 27, is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. PHOTO: JONATHAN CAPE

Mother and daughter resume a shared language filled with nonsensical words ("harpiedoodle", "duvduv") and ambiguous names ("The Bonak", made the scapegoat of their fears), reminding Gretel of a more carefree time that is long gone.

Johnson's ambitious undertaking is bolstered by her way with language, making settings come alive.

Grass is "so thin the chalk shows through, lumpy hills rising from the ribs of the ground". A stream "burps out of the dirt and sidles down the slope". It is as if the smell of the damp earth permeates the pages.

Gretel, a narrator who seems repeatedly sidelined in her own tragedy, makes no judgments as she pieces the story together, remaining composed - detached even - during her mother's tantrums and outbursts.

She is merely the witness to her mother's destruction - a daughter forced to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is beyond repair.

If you like this, read: Inheritance From Mother by Minae Mizumura (Other Pr Llc, 2017, $41.95, Books Kinokuniya), about another difficult mother-daughter relationship. Mitsuki Katsura loathes to care for her ailing and narcissistic mother, but is plagued with guilt for anticipating her demise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2018, with the headline 'Childhood mysteries in mother-daughter tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe