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)