It’s no coincidence that the main character and narrator of Everything Under is named Gretel. The name instantly conjures up a picture of a lost little girl. One stumbling through the forest, abandoned by her parents, in the clutches of a witch. But also the little girl who pushes that witch into the fire. And, of course, Gretel is one of a pair. She follows the trail of breadcrumbs hand-in-hand with Hansel. While there is no character named Hansel in the story, there is the shadow of that pairing throughout. It’s no coincidence because in her first novel, Daisy Johnson has crafted a thoughtful and unnerving story, full of subtle references and unspoken, hidden stories.
There are multiple stories here, weaving into a larger storyline. There is Gretel in the present, dealing with her reunion with her mother, who she is now caring for, both of their memories surfacing and sinking and unreliable. There is the story of how Gretel found her mother Sarah again, after years apart, following the day that Sarah simply walked away from her teenage daughter. There is the story of Marcus, who joined a younger Sarah and a child named Gretel on the river where they lived. There is the story of what Marcus was walking away from, of his family, and of a mysterious woman named Fiona.
There are hints of Oedipus and of fairytales. There is a mythic creature called the Bonak that dwells on the river. And there is the river community itself. Something apart from the rest of society, where the rules seem different but unstable. There are a lot of threads here but, for the most part, Johnson does an excellent job of steadily drawing them out and pulling them together.
While it did take me a few chapters to feel drawn into the story, once I was in, I was in and I found myself reading as quickly as I could to find what happened next. The ending left me with some definite questions but not without a sense of satisfaction. And a bit of fear.