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.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Everything Under

Living Memory (Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart)

“What are the four ways that a person can enter a book?” my uncle would often ask… . “Emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually, and philosophically… .”

Jane Urquhart opens all these doors for readers to enter Sanctuary Line, a layered story told through the memories of Liz Crane of the transplanted Butler clan. A woman now, Liz probes a childhood peopled with relatives – some, the “Great-greats” live through her uncle’s stories – while cousins and Teo (the son of a Mexican farm worker) play in the orchards and woods and grow up along Lake Erie’s shores.

The Butler clan’s roots were first transported from Ireland to Ohio. During the War of 1812, a branch of the family journeyed across Lake Erie to take up lighthouse keeping and farming – the clan’s traditional occupations – on Canada’s shores. Liz tells us that the Butlers are a “bifurcated” family. We come to learn they are split in other ways, as the story moves back and forth across time, place, and the complex world of memory. It is also a story of love and loss, of isolation and intimacy. It is a small, not uncommon story, a story magnificently told, a story of contradictions and surprises whose characters are full of the flaws that make them real.

In the novel, Sanctuary Line of the title is the name of the road that runs between Kingsville and Point Pelee. This alone intrigued me when I began to read. These are familiar places of my childhood and, reading, I could smell the ripening fruit and see the rivulets that run across wooded areas down to the Great Lake. And I, too, witnessed the life cycle of monarchs and saw a tree shimmer in late afternoon light with the beating wings of hundreds of butterflies as they prepared for the long journey across the water that would continue to Mexico, migrants not unlike the Mexican farm workers who arrive in the spring and depart in the fall.

Urquhart’s writing inspires: she quietly builds the tension toward her turning point and then weaves loose threads toward the conclusion. On the surface, Liz (mostly) maintains calm, but beneath run currents as threatening as those of the Great Lakes. Woven into the drama is the science of the monarchs and the changes being wrought to the landscape. Her skillfully integrated literary references are integral to the story – from the uncle’s old (and embroidered) tales to cousin Mandy’s passion for A Child’s Garden of Verses and later for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

It has been years since I’ve read The Whirlpool (1986), Away (1993), The Underpainter (1997), and The Stone Carvers (2001). Now Sanctuary Line has been added to the list to make five of Urquhart’s eight novels, not to mention her poetry and non-fiction.With each book, her skills grow and she makes the handling of her complex themes seem simple, “seem” being the operative word. Readers who enjoy learning while they’re reading, who like stories that flow, who enjoy the continuity of history and the disjunction thrown in by life’s curves, and who take pleasure in a well-written story will love Sanctuary Line, and I bet will seek out other of Jane Urquhart’s books.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Sanctuary Line

Review: Between Men (What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

I admit it. I bought this book because I loved the painting on cover.

What I Loved tells a story of friendship between two men, a friendship that expands to include their wives, and then their sons. A painting by New York artist William Wechsler (not the one on the cover) is bought by Leo Hertzberg, an English professor at Columbia. It is Leo who narrates the story, part saga and part thriller as it turns out.

When the story opens, the men are young and married: William/Bill to Lucille, a poet, and Leo to Erica who teaches English at Rutgers. The model in the purchased painting (and others) is Violet Blom who flies off to Paris in a veil of intrigue. The two couples become neighbours and friends, and later each have son during one summer: Mark to Bill and Lucille, and Matthew to Leo and Erica. As happens in stories—and life—trouble develops in paradise: Lucille moves out and Violet moves in. Of course, it is all more complicated and Siri Hustvedt weaves a much better tale. But this is merely to sketch the backdrop for the drama that unfolds. The painting, however, is central to understanding the story; first impressions can be superficial.

Leo describes the painting as it hung in the gallery:

Bill’s painting hung alone on a wall. If was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand—a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting.

We’ll see other paintings, each obscuring details so that it takes time and careful looking to actually see what they include. Things are not as simple and direct as first imagined. Over time, Bill’s creativity shifts to include sculptural forms, boxes that tell stories almost like visual folk or fairy tales. His vision suggests trouble and, for Leo, reminders of grief. There is tragedy and heartache, desperation and loneliness beyond the art.

Hustvedt writes with precision and psychological insight, with clarity and care for her characters. What I Loved’s ambiguities subtly reflect life—its joy and darkness. The writing is ambitious, compassionate, intelligent and will leave you thinking long after you’ve read the novel’s final word.

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Available through your neighbourhood bookstore or online: What I Loved