A Philosophical Reading of Daisy Johnson’s Work

by | Blog Post, Book Recommendations, Book Review

After reading Daisy’s novels ‘Everything Under’ and ‘Sisters’, I would best describe the world she creates as shadowy. It’s like stepping out in to the dark at night – things stop behaving predictably, there’s a lack of distinctness and outlines get blurry.

I thought I’d look at this from a philosophical standpoint and explore the way Daisy depicts the relationship between the mind and the body, and how this in turn shapes the identities of her characters.

In Philosophy (and in film) the difference between the mind and the body is sometimes explained by the visual image of the ghost in the machine; the idea being that you are a passenger within the physical mechanism of your body, steering it an guiding it to walk to the bookshop or make a cup of tea! The mind effects the body and the body effects the mind.

The mind is also thought to be very different to the body because people can see our body, we are a part of the physical world, but they can never see our mind. Your mind is something private and the only way others can know about what goes on inside there, is by listening to you. Someone could do a brain scan and point to the areas that are active, but all the same they can’t see your daydreams, your memories, they can’t experience what it’s like to be you.

We tend to identify most with our mind, accepting that our body changes over time; our appearance may change drastically, we could make ourselves unidentifiable, but we’d always be the same person on the inside. There’s books and films that have played around with the idea of waking in a different body, or a mother and daughter switching bodies, and it always rests on the idea that ‘you’ are your mind, regardless of what body it happens to be in.

When I read Daisy Johnson’s novels (which I loved and would highly recommend by the way), I kept noticing this mind and body distinction. I don’t believe that any reading of a book is a correct reading – this is just what I chose to see.

‘Everything Under’ is a novel about resurfacing memories as well as losing memories and how both impact on identity. We follow Gretel, who was raised on a barge by her mother, and when they reunite after many years apart, she begins to piece together a cloudy past.

Some philosophers, when discussing the mind, claim that what really makes us who we are is that we feel connected to a string of memories; we can look back and remember our birthdays, our childhood, and see these experiences all through the one perspective – this is what unifies all these scattered impressions and colours and feelings into a whole. This always makes me think of a paper doll chain.

But what happens if we start to lose our memories and that sense of continuity is threatened? In Everything Under, when Gretel is reunited with her mother, she finds that her mother is suffering from dementia. She initially doesn’t even recognise Gretel to be her daughter. Sometimes it’s like her present self doesn’t have access to her past self, as if she’s two people.

There’s one point where Gretel and her mother share a joke together and laugh, but in the very next moment her mother forgets and asks, “what are you laughing at?” Although she can’t always access her memories, I think we’d all be inclined to argue that yes, Gretel’s mother is still the same person at the core as she has always been, but Gretel struggles with this. In a reversal of the idea that our body may change whilst our mind stays the same, she says to herself ‘I tried to find you but instead found someone else who wears your face’.

Moving on to Daisy’s recent novel ‘Sisters’ – which by the way is my favourite book of the year! – I found echoes again of this distinction between mind and body. A house is used to represent the body; in a similar way to the ghost in the machine analogy, the body is the house of our mind.

Sisters July and September return to their old house with their mother, and here are definitely times when the house feels alive like a body: ‘the house burbles around us,’ ’the rooms are like organs, trembling a little under the flow of blood.

When their mother reflects back to when she was pregnant, she says that the house was just like her, ‘swelling and bloating out from its own walls.’She also describes her pregnancy as her body housing her daughters.

We learn more about the sisters’ relationship to one another through the extended use of this house metaphor. July and September already appear quite co-dependent when they’re introduced to us, and July describes the way her sister dominates her identity by describing a house: ‘If brains are houses with many rooms then I live in the basement’, and ‘if brains are houses with many rooms then September lives in every single one.’

Over time,the sisters become increasingly enmeshed and it becomes harder to separate them.Intention and action get blurry – who willed the body to do what? Memories overlap and cancel one another out. ‘When one of us speaks we both feel the words moving on our tongues.’

This is interesting because it’s almost as if two minds are inhabiting the same body, in a similar way to how they both inhabit the same house. In Philosophy of Mind, some questions often asked about the nature of the mind are – if the mind isn’t a physical thing then what chains it to just one body, what stops it seeping out, what stops it merging with other minds?

This reaches an interesting peak when September loses her virginity (though by this point we may be wondering where the boundary lies between September and July or if there really is one at all). Both sisters seem to lose their virginity at the same time. ‘September is having sex and – because really two means one – I am having sex too.’I don’t want to give any spoilers away as this book is only recently out, but this brings up philosophical (and psychological) questions about the nature of identity and whether two or more distinct identities can occupy the same body.

For both novels, there is a sense of things that spill out over their lines. In Everything Under, this could be said of memories; some memories are swallowed down and forgotten whilst others rise to the surface. This effects the characters’ sense of identity. In ‘Sisters’, there is a fragile line between one sister and the other, pronouns shifting from ‘I’ to ‘we’, two minds housed in the same skin. In both novels, neither mind nor body are reliable indicators of who a person really is.

Thanks for reading – and go check out these books if you fancy a walk in the dark.

Words by Ele-Beth.

You can buy Everything Under here, and Sisters here.

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