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Sisters is a difficult book to review because there is a massive potential spoiler that must be avoided; and without referencing it, the review is really not getting to the point. But being obliged to post a review in exchange for early access to the title, needs must. July and September are sisters and the novel concerns a move from comfortable Oxford to the Settle House in an undisclosed northern location, probably somewhere near Whitby. Most of the novel is narrated by July, the slightly younger of the sisters (if you assume they were named for their birth month, this could place them only ten months apart and in the same UK school year). They are close (at lease according to July) almost to the point of telekinesis. At times, July feels as though they are the same person. Yet September seems to have an unhealthy and dangerous controlling influence over July. They are both somewhat emotionally stunted, turning to one another for company and friendship rather than building links with their fellow school students and this is not to their advantage. They are described as being very young for their age. Then there is Sheela, the mother. Sheela narrates a couple of small sections. She is a writer although she hides this talent well in her sections. She is an emotional wreck. Her life in Oxford has been uprooted; the sisters have driven her to making a bolt for the Settle House. This is one of those novels that Has a gentle and straightforward first half and then things go weird. And, as I often do, I think the straightforward section was more successful. It created some beautiful characters, a quietly unsettling scene and hints of darkness. Then when the weirdness starts, the lucidity evaporates and events are referenced in obviously and deliberately opaque terms. It really feels like a cop out. Writers from past times - Sheridan Le Fanu, for example - had no difficulty in creating strangeness while remaining quite lucid. Sarah Waters manages it in modern times. The strangeness should come from the ideas rather than the language. And Daisy Johnston was managing it perfectly well in the first half. Sisters is a short novel but the second half (from Sheela’s first narrative onwards) feels painfully long. ***00
Everything Under is a transposition of an ancient Greek legend into modern-day England. I did not know which legend when I read the novel which allowed a slow dawning to take place. Other reviewers have named the legend and I cannot help feeling that knowing where things are heading would make the reading both simpler and less satisfying, Therefore, I will skirt around much of the plot. Having said that knowing the direction of travel would make the reading simpler, it must be said that without this knowledge, the reading is far from straightforward. There are 8 main sections, each broken into subsections headed "The River", "The Hunt", "The Cottage", etc. These are in fact parallel narratives that continue through the novel. They are opaque in terms of who is narrating and when they take place. This is further complicated by some characters having more than one name and more than one role; and the general absence of names through much of the work. Timelines seem to clarify and then blur again. It is not easy to see how the narratives inter-relate and for the first quarter (at least) of the text, there is a fog of confusion. There are river boats, a senile woman, a lexicographer, a cast of people who live on the canals and in the woods... With time, little chinks of light are let into the narrative. Piece by piece, things start to fall into place. By three quarters, most pieces are in place and by the end, it is mostly transparent. It is as if the fog has lifted and some of the things that happened in the fog don't look too well in the clear light of day. Everything Under is actually a really dark and menacing work. That doesn't make it unlovely, though The description of the houseboat community is brilliant. I took this to be set in Oxford - where our lexicographer works - but perhaps that is adding two and two and getting five. The descriptions of unconventional childhoods, of fluid gender identity, of ambiguous sexuality are all fabulous. There are abandonments - walking away from children, walking away from families. There is the kindness of strangers mixed in with the threat of monsters - the canal thief and the Bonak. Everything Under feels perfectly balanced. The gradual reveal makes the book progressively easier to read and makes the reader feel smart as the penny drops, time after time, just before a significant detail is revealed. There is delicacy, there is complexity. I loved Everything Under. My only reservation is that the parallels to the Greek legend slightly diminish the experience and make something bizarre and quirky feel a bit contrived. As some novels grow in power after they have been put down, this one feels a little as though it is losing its edge. But that's just me; I am sure others will feel differently. It's still a bit of a masterpiece. *****