So… as many of your probably know, The Man Booker Prize long-list was announced in July. I am yet to read all of this year’s nominations, in fact I’ve only read two – but I was OVER THE MOON to find said two on the list: Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. In that mystical, intoxicating way books can, these novels got under my skin. Ever since reading the first page of both (and long after reading the last!), they have returned again and again to me. Unbidden, suddenly and completely, with an intensity I’d usually associate with memory. I can smell them, taste the air, feel the weight of their skies.
Johnson and Mackintosh do not shy from darkness – these books (amazingly, both debut novels by young women) feel dangerous, they feel necessary. And they are astonishingly beautiful and moving. Well worth the dive.
The Water Cure is a gauzy, luminous nightmare – the pages drenched in light, and dread. Mackintosh’s prose is extraordinary. It blazes, gleaming and precise as a knife’s edge. Somehow, the world she draws is airily incandescent, and at the very same time stifling and savage as hell.
Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky, live with Mother, and their father King, in an abandoned mansion on an island. Somewhere over the expanse of ocean is the mainland – a perilous, terrifying place where men are literally “toxic”, where their toxicity has bled into the air. King has dedicated his life to protecting the girls, their isolation, they are told, is necessary for their survival. So too are the numerous (elaborate and brutal) “therapies” devised to prepare the sisters for the time, if it comes, that the evils of the mainland can no longer be kept at bay. One day King disappears, and Mother assumes his place. Not long after, the sea brings three strange men to the island, and things begin to change in ways the girls could not have imagined.
Everything Under is a thicketed, eerie tale, set against the backdrop of the Oxfordshire waterways. Much of the story is told by Gretel, a lexicographer who works updating dictionary entries. Gretel has spent her adult life intermittently searching for her mother Sarah – a fierce and compelling woman who inexplicably abandoned her at sixteen. When an unexpected call brings Sarah, now deep in the throws of dementia, crashing back into her daughter’s life, Gretel is suddenly thigh deep in the past. Compelled to try and unravel the knotted tendrils of her early years, things start to come back in glimpses, including the private language mother and daughter invented. In particular, there is the ‘Bonak’ – a mysterious, feared river beast that plagued Gretel’s childhood, and from whose phantom clutches neither woman seems ever to have been released. Too, there is the strange boy who lived with Mother and daughter for a time on their boat: his presence seemed to change everything.
Johnson seamlessly braids myth into the everyday: here, the river people, existing at the edges of society, are a different breed. It is not a stretch to believe that into their world seep forces, and creatures, foreign to our own. At some point, I started to feel there was something familiar about the story – and indeed, Johnson has reworked Sophocles’ Oedipus story, now with a virtually all-female (and transgender/gender-fluid) cast.
Johnson deftly explores the shrouded, tangled landscape of memory, identity, fate, womanhood, language. She has a phenomenal capacity to render these abstract, psychic forces and experiences physically, visually. In her hands, the liminal, the ostensibly intangible, take on form and weight – they crowd and weave the characters, as they crowd and weave you – the reader. And that is the thing about this book – the experience of reading it takes you to the heart of the experiences it describes. It is shadowy, tormented, sometimes hard to follow: claustrophobic one moment, gloriously evocative the next.