Daisy Johnson makes the old so fresh, it feels raw. In her debut novel, Everything Under, the English author retells the Oedipus myth — that icky man-kills-his-father-and-marries-his-mother story — in a way that not only functions believably in a modern context but also carries a propulsive urgency. She writes with flashy lyricism, with motifs of flowing rivers and swaying trees rendered vividly on the page.
But as Johnson speaks about her book, she’s hardly so precious. In fact, she details her process and her choices with a striking matter-of-factness.
“There’s something so destructive about the idea of a retelling,” Johnson says gleefully. “Saying something about our world through a classic lens. I love the idea of destroying something and putting it back together.”
Johnson, 27, is one of her generation’s most intriguing authors. Last month, she was named the youngest-ever finalist for the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. (The winner was Anna Burns for Milkman.) It’s not the first time she’s proved her rare knack for the uncanny. Her first book, the 2017 short-story collection Fen, introduced a command of setting, mood, and literary subversion — not to mention a fascination with the power of words. “In Fen, the language becomes really aggressive,” as Johnson puts it. “It becomes this other thing — sort of attacking the characters.”
Everything Under, which centers on Gretel, a woman who reunites with the mother who abandoned her, evolves as a haunting monster story, then a twisted queer fairy tale, then a Greek tragedy. Johnson takes on Oedipus’ themes of primal urges and free will, but through a deep exploration of trauma. The key to the book’s mystery, for instance, is an elusive girl named Margot whose gender transition presages the myth’s dark climax; chapters alternate between the character’s two identities, fragmented, blocking the full identity from coming into view until the conclusion.
Johnson feels honored to rank among the various new novels working off of Greek classics. Kamila Shamsie won the U.K.’s Women’s Prize for her Antigone retelling Home Fire; Pat Barker is generating buzz for her feminist take on The Iliad. And that’s to say nothing of how Madeline Miller has reframed Greek mythology with her best-sellers Song of Achilles and Circe. “It’s really exciting to be a part of,” Johnson says. With Oedipus particularly, the author believed breathing new life into the story would be risky. “I really did want a challenge, and I loved how daft it was: It’s got a lot of magic and a lot of strange things happening. I wanted to see if I could take that and make it new.”
Everything Under is the second book under the deal Johnson secured in the U.K. The road to completion was arduous. “When I brought it to my publisher over here, it was an entirely different book,” she confesses. “[I’d] write an entire draft in which a lot of my ideas would change, but at least I could work through things. Then when I got to the end of that draft, it wouldn’t be right, so I’d start again from scratch.” She takes a breath. “Gradually, the ideas clarified.”
She felt guided by her source material’s structure. “From the moment you start reading [Oedipus], you sort of feel an inevitability about it that builds,” Johnson says, adding it was a goal to maintain that. Everything Under is also a marvel of structure — Johnson spins nearly a half-dozen timelines and perspectives, and they fit together with intricate perfection. Again, managing this wasn’t exactly easy; the artful construction is the result of a surprisingly mathematical process. She’d organize her various narratives on cards (“moving little bits around the room”) and find ways to click them into place: “It felt like a dangerous thing to do — completely blow up the structure — but it was necessary.”
Destruction defines Johnson’s approach: She wants to reformulate wordings and plots to reinvent entire stories. “The language we use makes us the people we are,” she says. And indeed, as with her first book, that’s what Everything Under comes down to. Gretel is taught a language all her own by her mother, an experience which informs her decision to become, of all things, a lexicographer as an adult. (Another late addition by Johnson: “As soon as I thought of it, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, of course!’”)
Language is a tricky thing to explore in and of itself, at least novelistically, but in the context of mythmaking, it’s essential. Johnson deliberately fashions language as a “character” — it plays a pivotal role in the aforementioned monster story, fairy tale, and of course, tragedy. By breaking it down to its barest parts, she fits us into tapestries of her own making — holding up a mirror to us before shattering and reassembling it. With Everything Under, Johnson roars along a new path, littered with the ghosts of literature’s past. Who knows where she’ll go next?