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
This is the story I return to whenever I’m trying to write. An intensely spare yet entirely convincing tale of transformation, ‘Starver’ maintains the curious reserve of a folktale whilst relating deeply personal events. A teenager watches as her sister starves herself into the shape of an eel, the horror of ridging spines and webbing fingers juxtaposed against the dailiness of home and school. It’s a story which wears its grotesquerie lightly, hitting you with delicacy at unexpected moments: “Her face had changed too, her nose flattening out, nostrils thinning to lines.”
Fen is a collection built around liminality and the instability of bodies in the wild and ‘Starver’ exemplifies everything I love about Johnson’s writing. It is a story that slips and slides, eel-like, gently horrendous and deeply tender all at once.
Collected in Fen, Jonathan Cape, 2016
The ancient marshy fens of East Anglia are the eerie, magical backdrop of Daisy Johnson’s debut collection Fen. In ‘Blood Rites’, the fen plays host to three female cannibals. Hunters, they’re almost vampiric as they prowl from place to place, seeking fresh flesh to devour. When locals gather for pints at the Fox and Hound, vulnerable to and yet unsuspicious of the beautiful strangers amongst them, the three women imagine they “would taste like the earth, like potatoes buried until they were done, like roots and tree bark.” The trio relate to one another and the world around them in a distorted reflection of femininity: they shave their legs and think about men, but only because that’s what they must do to survive. They stand outside looking in on what it is to be girls, to be women, and to be human – until something happens that warps their identities irreparably. Johnson has this penchant for taking young, flawed characters and placing them in the dark realm of folklore, and this story absolutely exemplifies that flair.
Published in Fen, Jonathan Cape, 2016. You can read it in The Pool
The One with The Sense of Place:
I could have chosen just about any story from Daisy Johnson’s magnificent debut collection ‘Fen’ and it would be a textbook example of How Your Short Stories Should Have a Sense of Place, but this one is (just about) my favourite.
Three women (Vampires? Monsters?) flee Paris and move into a wrecked house out on the fens, where they start seducing and eating the local men. But it turns out that ‘fen men were not the same as the men we’d had before. They lingered in you…’
Johnson’s story (and the others in the collection) is full of tastes and smells, of earth and dirt and meat, of land and weather and sex. There are echoes of Angela Carter, and Dylan Thomas’s gloriously ripe early short stories, but Johnson is already very much her own writer.
And she writes landscape and place as well as, if not better than, just about anybody.
(In Fen, Jonathan Cape 2016)