Daisy Johnson’s debut short story collection is set entirely in East Anglia’s fenland: a silty mix of fresh- and saltwater marshes, drained in the 19th century and now well-populated and heavily cultivated, but still a tricksy, liminal landscape lying below sea-level wholly dependent on the system of pumps and embankments that protect it. There’s an uncanniness to the fens that derives both from their singular geography (the lack of firm perimeters; the edgeless, overlit swathes of sky-filled water) and their essential provisionality; the ever-deepening sense that their inhabitants are living on borrowed time, in a borrowed place.
In the stories in Fen, Johnson taps into that uncanniness and makes of it something original and gripping. Boundaries shift and slide, myth and folklore seep up and insinuate their way into her characters’ solid-seeming lives, and the barriers between past and present, fact and fiction and even humans and animals become fluid and unreliable. Again, it’s a collection that repays reading as a whole – the stories themselves are only lightly bounded, flowing into one another and setting off ripples. Which is why I’m recommending the first story: on the grounds that once you’ve read this, you’ll have no choice but to read the others, too. Also: the opening sentence is a slam-dunk. “The land was drained”, Johnson begins, before briefly describing the delight of the “workforce brought in to build on the wilderness” to find it filled with eels, a rich source of food – and then their horror when the captured eels refused to eat, leaving the workers starving in turn. The story then jumps forward to the present-day, where an apparently unexceptional teenage girl – party-going, netball-playing, make-up-wearing – announces her own, 21st-Century intention of “stopping eating”. What follows, though, is not the expected slide into anorexia – in this fenland setting, the act of self-deprivation effects not a reduction, but an astonishing transformation. The girl turns into an eel, and the story concludes with the narrator (her sister) carrying her in a wet towel to the canal at the bottom of the school field. “I lay her on the ground, jerked her free from the towel, pushed her sideways into the water. She did not roll her white belly to message me goodbye or send a final ripple,” she says, unexcitedly. “Only ducked deep and was gone.” No explanation is asked for or offered; we’re simply left, high and dry. It sets the tone for the rest of this odd, unsettling, atmospheric collection.
First appeared in Fen, published by Jonathan Cape, 2016