Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Book Review and Writing Tips

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling….

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is the story of a daughter, mother, and digging into memory:

If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.

It is the story of words: their creation, meaning, and power:

Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language of our own.

And it is a story about fear: naming it, running from it:

One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock you door open, put on the light.

The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic.

Johnson’s story reverberates from the present to the past and it balloons into more than a mother’s dementia and a daughter’s search to find meaning behind the words, truth.

Some mornings I am cold with certainty that only some ancient punishment will do, a stoning or a blinding, leaving you out for the wolves. You tell me that you didn’t know and we grow silent and wonder if either of us really believes that. Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds.

Truth is elusive, stretching to include a run-away youth: Margo/Marcus. And it becomes tangled like the weeds beneath the boat, knotted into words woven into the Oedipus myth.

Daisy Johnson has created an original page-turning story that was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2018. Fall into Everything Under and let her laden words carry you like the river’s current.

Reading as a writer:

  1. Gretel, the daughter-narrator, is a lexicographer. Pay attention to the role words play in the story and why Johnson made her a word person. As you read, also consider the naming of people and objects in Johnson’s story. What is the importance of Gretel’s career choice and how does it impact or layer the story? In your writing, what do character’s names bring to your stories? What do their roles contribute?
  2. Can you read “Gretel” without thinking of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel? What does this allusion bring to Everything Under? Gretel is as lost in her own way as her mother is lost in dementia. Another literary reference is made to the Oedipus myth. Think about your own literary references and ask yourself if they are integral to your story, layering it and deepening the meaning, or if they are superficial and ostentatious.

63 Everything Under

Available through your local bookstore or online: Everything Under

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Book Review and Writing Tips

The sound of children screaming, wood splintering, and life departing roared from behind. I tried to run toward the crowd but the soldier grabbed me and threw me off the road. I crawled through the snow toward the pink of Emilia’s hat and draped my body over hers. (Joana)

I’ve read many books about the atrocities that occurred during World War II and hesitated to open another. I’m glad that I did. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a timely reminder of the human costs and futility of war.

Salt to the Sea unfolds through the voices of four separate narrators: Joana (a nurse who is haunted by guilt); Florian (an artist whose skill is his fate); Emilia (whose condition is her shame); and Alfred (whose fear propels him toward betrayal and delusion). Joana, Florian and Emilia—along with a blind girl, an old shoemaker, a small boy, and a giant woman—make a hellish journey toward the port at Gotenhafen, walking across Lithuania, East Prussia, and Poland as Russia advances toward Germany and Germany advances toward Russia. Alfred awaits aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury liner refitted to evacuate German military and refugees.

I held the paper, waiting to approach the checkpoint. I stared at the type.… Special pass. It looked real. Perhaps my best work ever. (Florian)

At the lagoon, the refugees must cross there was a strafing, panic of course, then fifteen-year-old Emilia:

We waited on the bank for several hours but the planes did not return. The water froze again. So did our hands and feet.

I held my breath as we crossed, quivering at the thought of our Ingrid frozen beneath. The ice ached and groaned, like bones carrying too many years, brittle and threatening to snap at any moment.

Alfred, already aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff is a frightened boy, a boy in the German navy:

This would be my first-ever journey at sea. My maiden voyage had already presented its challenges. I noticed an unbecoming rash had appeared on my hands and in my armpits. I blamed the Communists.

These excerpts do not begin to demonstrate the page-turning intensity of the story. Sepetys does not wow with vocabulary or overwrought emotion. She lets each of her narrators slowly reveal their character and together their voices accumulate to tell the larger, universal horrors of thousands of women, old men and children crossing treacherous landscapes and borders (the young men—except for Florian—have been conscripted).

I highly recommend Salt to the Sea. I’m a slow reader but the bedside lamp was lit most of two nights straight and the last page was read before the weekend was over.

For the writers among us:

  1. The point of view of the narrator affects what readers are told and how they respond to a story. The story of the three little pigs would be different if told from the wolf’s perspective rather than an omnipotent narrator who is sympathetic to the pigs’ plight. Think about Sepetys use of multiple narrators and what she may be attempting to achieve that she could not achieve with a single narrator.
  2. As Robert Fulford wrote in The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, “There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning, otherwise it is not a story, merely a sequence of events. [T]here is no such thing as value-free story.” As you read, think about the values embedded in Salt to the Sea. What is Sepetys telling us about war and its victims?
  3. Do you write (or will you attempt writing) stories with multiple points-of-view? What can you learn from Ruta Sepetys’ Salt and the Sea? Poets too: accept the challenge.

All this…and we did not even touch on researching and writing historical fiction! Another time perhaps.

62 Salt to the Sea

Available through your local bookstore or online: Salt to the Sea