Every landscape has a story to tell about water. Here a glacier gouged its way through rock, forming a lake. There a shoreline receded, leaving a lake bed to burn in the sun’s regard. Our bodies, if you think of them as landscapes, tell such tales too. It’s in our blood plasma, after all, which is more than 90 percent water.
Given this fact of life, how strange few writers consider what stories water has to tell about us. Daisy Johnson, however, is one of them. In her debut collection, “Fen,’’ set on the flooded marshland of the British midlands, she redrafted myths long dormant into powerful, strange, and alluring new tales.
She has done it again in “Everything Under,” a vivid retelling of the myth of Oedipus for an age finally acknowledging the fluidity of gender. So skillful and imaginative is the 27-year-old’s tale of time and fate that it earned her the distinction of being named the youngest Man Booker Prize finalist.
In Johnson’s rendition, Oedipus is a girl named Margot, traveling — partly for reasons of safety — as a boy named Marcus, along the canals outside of Oxford, hoping to protect his parents from a terrible prophecy uttered by a soothsaying transgendered woman.
We learn this story from Gretel Whiting, the narrator and pilot of this watery novel, which meanders back and forth in time, deploying first-, second-, and third-person points of view. As the book opens, Gretel has just begun a family reckoning of her own. Her missing mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel as a teenager, has just turned up to help her daughter through the past’s confusing locks. Sarah’s guidance, unfortunately, will be limited by her advanced Alzheimer’s.
If this description feels like plunging in at the deep end, be forewarned. It takes two readings of “Everything Under” to appreciate how intricately Johnson has mapped these stories, and, in some cases, to fully fathom their connections. In part, Johnson wants us to be as confused as Gretel is, so she deploys characters before introducing them, doubles back on their stories before telling them, and arrives at endings before even starting at the beginning.
Such is the path of this book’s river, which seeks to upend the tidy notion that things like time and lineage only travel downstream. Anyone who has stepped into a river knows in blacker sections eddies can pull you under, just like a family past — where destiny can feel like a waterfall. So we watch in this book as Gretel attempts to wade into her mother’s fast receding memory to retrieve what really happened to her growing up, and what became of Marcus, the boy disguised as a girl who turned up when Gretel was 13.
Sometimes it’s hard not to wish sometimes Johnson had let metaphor do its own patient work. This book revolves around an almost numerological pattern. Gretel is 16 when her mother leaves, and Sarah returns after 16 years. Clueing the reader in to the fact that this book is its own form of puzzle, Johnson drops in signals, bending her sentences away from their natural grace. “In the scree of trees,” opens one chapter, “crows gathered and then broke apart like jigsaw pieces.” Do jigsaws break apart?
For every section that feels overly serpentine, however, there are several so neatly dammed they feel as contained and beautiful as prose poems. Johnson also ultimately gains purchase on her tributaries. In sections called “The Hunt,’’ Gretel describes her search for her mother and how it becomes a quest for Marcus; in others called “The Cottage,’’ Gretel depicts life after Sarah has been found; and in still others labeled “The River,’’ we follow Margot on her flight to becoming Marcus.
These last sections are among the books finest, as they force us to reconsider how gendered danger is for travelers, how Oedipus, in some ways, was freer to seek out his fate; whereas Margot as Marcus is chased by hers, and must — like Gretel and her mother — parse danger from danger. What is the effect of this ramparting, between mothers and daughters, is one question this book asks. What icy slipstreams does it conceal?
Gradually, these sections wash over into each other, belying their neatly-labeled separateness. Simultaneously, language itself warps in Gretel’s very hands as she attempts to handle stories so long buried it’s hard to tell what they even once were about. At the very bottom of this sludge, surfacing in bursts of recollection so strange they feel like dreams, is the spectre of something called the Bonak: part demon, part sea monster, part symbol of everything Sarah and her daughter try to keep submerged.
It takes a bold mind to steer so many elements through one tale, and an even stronger stylist to render them in a narrative that heeds, but seems not to, the laws of nature. Johnson has done all this in a book that will probably be read, like Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both,’’ for years to come as a part of the reclaiming of narrative territory, not unlike the “Fens,’’ full of unplumbed depths. Terrible monsters. Even more terrible grace.
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By Daisy Johnson
Graywolf, 272 pp., $16
John Freeman is the author of Maps, a collection of poems, and editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, the latest theme of which is power.