Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the Trojan War by one of the women on the side of defeat is essential, and essentially human.

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War told by the victors, and by men. At long last, another perspective is offered, in Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was queen of a city near Troy and, after it fell to the Greeks, she was given as prize of honor to Achilles. After Apollo compelled him to forfeit a concubine, Agamemnon took Briseis for his own. This indignity inspires Achilles’s famous sulk, which begins the Iliad.

In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, The Silence of the Girls is a much-needed retelling. Where men sing of honor and glory, women experience a different war. They are controlled by men: by their fathers and husbands, and then by their captors. Briseis is beautiful and royal; she hates her new status as concubine, but sees the far worse treatment of the “common women” who sleep under the Greeks’ huts, with their dogs, and are used by any man who pleases. She is clever and gives nuanced portraits of many characters in the Greek encampment below Troy’s walls. She is proud, angered by the indignities of slavery. One of the book’s themes is the question of authorship: she knows that it is Achilles’s story that the world will hear, but she searches for her own within narratives of men and war.

Strong, beautiful Achilles is cold, but stops short of cruelty. Gentle Patroclus eventually befriends Briseis. Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nestor are profiled; but equally important are the other slave women. Briseis has friends, allies and antagonists among them, but always considers their struggles. For example, Ajax’s concubine is one of several women who recommend pregnancy above all other strategies. Briseis does not love her captors. But one of her revelations involves how the Trojans will survive, in the end: the sons of the Greeks will remember the Trojan lullabies their captive mothers sang to them.

The Silence of the Girls, like the classic it’s modeled on, is an epic. Briseis’s uncertain situation brings tension and momentum. At just 300 pages, this novel feels much bigger than it is, but is never heavy. Even with the atrocities, violence and loss it portrays, the protagonist’s thoughtful, compassionate point of view emphasizes humanity. It would be too much to say she weighs both sides of an issue evenly; she is loyal to her family and angry with her captors, but she also sees the tragedy in ranks of young Greek boys killed.

This mature, reflective narrative manages the cataloging of Homer’s telling (how many tripods offered, how many bowls of wine mixed), but with a grace and an interest in individual people that is fresh and novel. Barker uses metaphor and animal imagery deftly. Her prose flows easily, like storytelling between friends. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for any devoted fan of the Iliad, but equally accessible to those new to the Trojan story; indeed, The Silence of the Girls might make the perfect entry.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 waves.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.

San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya

I previewed this one for you a few weeks ago.

Uncle Vanya started slow but ended up enjoyable. The first half, pre-intermission, dragged a little; Grammy felt so, and I did, and I heard similar murmurings about us. I suspect the conversational model for this production (see that earlier post) contributed to this impression, as it indeed took more audience effort to engage with the actors and their lines. And here’s a major flaw in the model: we had read quite a bit about the quietness and the recommendation to use the offered assistive listening devices. We were greeted upon arrival with further cautions on this point. But then we were told that the device was incompatible with hearing aids. Grammy was told that she could take her hearing aids out to use the device, but that her hearing aids should be sufficient. Well, they weren’t. She pretty much missed the first half of the production. We set her up during intermission, and she caught the second half fine, but we did some pretty serious debriefing after the show about what she’d missed, so that she really got the overall story only after the fact. I’m very disappointed in this aspect. It’s a shame that after such effort was taken, we were so poorly served. An innovative production can only be appreciated to the extent that it can be taken in.

That said, the second half picked up in pace (and I found it much funnier), and Grammy could hear, and I observed that the crowd around me perked up. It’s really a fine play by Chekhov, only it requires a little patience. The acting was fine! And the theatre is a lovely space: small and intimate and atmospheric. There is something so special about a theatre in the round. (I spent the first half watching an elderly gentleman in the front row across from me sleeping. He woke up but good in the second half.)

In a classic sense, the plot of the play involves several formations of unrequited love; the resentments of family, class, income, and caregiving roles; and general frustrations about the shape of human lives: family, and our relationship with the natural world. There is a fair amount of humor, but the chief feeling is one of distress. Also classic is the sense that if only these people would talk to each other outright, much would be resolved; but if this is an exasperating tendency of fiction plots, that’s only because it’s an exasperating tendency of people in real life. In the end, I felt sympathy for most of the characters, despite their flaws. I thought the acting was wonderful, especially Vanya, and the doctor, and Sonya, and I thought the production over all was a good one–setting, props, theatre management–and I, at least, had no trouble hearing. But again, the failure to serve my Grammy with the much-discussed assistive listening devices is a crying shame. I enjoyed it, but certainly have some criticisms. As always, I feel very lucky to take in fine theatre in a beautiful city and with great company. Thanks, Grammy.


Rating: 7 glasses of vodka, naturally.

upcoming: San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya

For today, a little background information on a review that is to come.

This week, I am so lucky to spend time with my Grammy in beautiful balmy southern California. Among other things, she takes me to such very fine events as this production. And clips all the relevant papers for me to peruse.

Grammy’s paperwork

This is such a different production that I wanted to do a post ahead of seeing the play, so that you get the same preview I did.

Much is being made of this play in advance. This translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky was commissioned by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where I still remember seeing Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona with my Grammy and Pop when I was ten. (Lucky, lucky girl.) Pevear and Volokhonsky are today’s “pre-eminent latter-day translators of Russian translators” (from The San Diego Union-Tribune, and I certainly don’t know any better). The theatre installed an extra row of seats for the first time, so an already intimate space becomes still more so. And, stepping away from ingrained theatre traditions, according to a letter sent to my grandmother when she purchased the tickets:

Over the past eight years of his work as both playwright and director, Richard Nelson has been exploring what’s been dubbed a ‘conversational theatre.’ In it, the characters speak, behave, and interact as truthfully as possible, and the audience listens in. The actors focus with uncommon rigor on each other, and invite the audience to lean into their interactions. They don’t artificially turn to the audience, they don’t ‘cheat out’ to make sure they are always seen at every moment, they don’t push their voices to be heard. They simply converse with each other as people do in real life, as if no one were watching. And the audience listens, closely, as if overhearing a conversation at the next table in a restaurant.

Therefore, we are urged to pick up assistive listening devices, which are being provided in larger-than-ever numbers, to help us hear this quiet conversation. Director Nelson points out that Uncle Vanya is “a family play… a very complicated family play, but it’s a family play” with the smallest cast of any of Chekhov’s works.

Some years ago, I saw a play at Houston’s Alley Theatre that referenced this one, but other than that, this is my first experience with Chekhov, though his reputation of course precedes him. I’m really excited to see Chekhov performed at all, but this unusual production sounds especially interesting. It’s always such a treat–to see my Grammy, to see the Pacific Ocean (off her balconies!), and to see fine theatre in such a lovely little space as the Old Globe. I mark my gratitude here, then, and I’ll get you a review of the play in weeks to come!

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In preparation for Devon McNamara’s seminar at the recent residency, I reread Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in the copy I bought for an undergraduate class some 15 years ago. Some things don’t change. I still love Shakespeare’s comedy, and he remains relevant.

So many Shakespearean tropes here. The shipwreck, the twins, the gender-bending, the misplaced affections. Stranded in Illyria, separated from her brother who she presumes dead, Viola dresses up as a young man to serve the duke Orsino. He assigns her to court, on his behalf, the grieving countess Olivia. Orsino loves Olivia; as a boy “Cesario” Viola courts Olivia for Orsino’s sake; Viola loves Orsino; Olivia promptly falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola’s brother Sebastian presumes her dead, even as Olivia mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Confused yet? That’s natural. So are the characters of this lively play, but it all ends well* with a double-wedding, of course. Extra comedy is provided by Sir Toby Belch (great name) and his friend Sir Andrew, and Olivia’s Fool, and their fun at the expense of her self-important servant Malvolio (another great name). And wouldn’t you know it, this play is being produced at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival in my hometown, which I hate to miss.

*Not all ends well, though. Even as the heroes dance away to wed, Malvolio is embarrassed and offended, and even though we’ve enjoyed seeing him made fun of we feel badly to see this ill treatment. And Sebastian marries to the disappointment of one Antonio who has loved him throughout. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to include some comedy; and his comedies do generally allow that all do not live happily ever after.

No major insights here, but Shakespeare is always worth your time, and this one is a good representative choice.


Rating: 8 banks of violets.

For the insight: Devon McNamara’s statement (paraphrased from my notes) that Shakespeare’s major concern was always the relationship between parents and children, upon which all other relationships depend. That is something to ponder, for those of us writing about our parents.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.
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