Fen by Daisy Johnson review – an impressive first collectionJohnson’s surreal and atmospheric stories are set in a liminal landscape where girls become eels
Saturday 18 July 2016
here was a time when East Anglia’s fenland was nothing more than a silty mix of fresh- and saltwater marshes into which people rarely ventured, an unstable place with one foot on solid ground and one in the sea. Attempts were made to drain it as far back as Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that technology advanced to the point where its freedom from flooding could be guaranteed. Today it is heavily cultivated, its fertile soil providing some of the country’s richest farmland. But for all that, it remains conditional: a tricksy, liminal landscape lying below sea level whose web of fields and schools and houses is wholly dependent on the system of pumps and embankments that has been constructed to protect it. There is an uncanniness to the fens that derives both from their singular geography (the lack of firm perimeters; the edgeless, overlit swaths of sky-filled water) and their essential provisionality; the ever-deepening sense, in this age of global warming, that their inhabitants are living on borrowed time, in a borrowed place.
Daisy Johnson’s debut short story collection is set entirely in this flat, saturated country. Through her tales, she taps into that uncanniness and makes it original and gripping. Boundaries shift and slide and myth and folklore seep up from the sodden ground and insinuate their way into her characters’ solid-seeming lives.The physical fluidity of the fens wells up and washes over everything, so that the barriers between past and present, fact and fiction and even humans and animals become liquid and unreliable, too. An albatross bursts in through the kitchen window of a reluctantly pregnant woman, ready to relieve her of the baby. A dead boy is reincarnated – perhaps – in the body of a fox. In the opening story, what begins as an unexceptional tale of an unexceptional teenage girl – party-going, netball-playing, makeup-wearing – abruptly shifts into something remarkable. When she states her intention of “stopping eating”, we brace ourselves for the inevitable slide into anorexia – but 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.”
The matter-of-factness with which Johnson accommodates such fantastical events, and the restraint of her language, is further bolstered by her depictions of the provincial towns in which the action takes place. These are stories in which houses fall in love with girls; in which a mother gives birth to a messianic boy whose sucks her mind and memory dry; in which beautiful young women bring men home and literally devour them. But there are also stories set in towns where everyone knows everyone else from school and the pub is always called the Fox and Hounds, and in houses jam–packed with the humdrum paraphernalia of modern life: microwaves and reheated curries; televisions; nail varnish. Such sturdy details save the stories from edging into whimsy; more than that, their mundanity contributes to the collection’s creepiness. Women who feast on their lovers are the stuff of fairytales; women who feast on their lovers and make toast and paint each other’s nails afterwards are far harder to exorcise.
And it is women, alongside the East Anglian landscape, who are the subjects of this collection. Johnson’s protagonists are all female, and mostly young: women who are either in the process of transitioning from girlhood to womanhood, or recently graduated and exploring the powers it bestows on them. By drawing parallels between the state of femaleness and the fens, she reclaims the tired cliches of women as fluid, changeable, governed by mysterious tides and turns them on their head. In a liminal land where boundaries are unreliable and endlessly shifting, her women fit right in; her men, by contrast, are lumpen, coarse, animal in intellect rather than in desire. The women flow around them like water, moulding and moving them without seeming to do so. At its best, Johnson’s heady broth of folklore, female sexuality and fenland landscape reads like a mix of Graham Swift andAngela Carter.
The collection isn’t always at its best, of course; the all-female cast list seemed to feel a little undifferentiated by the end, and there were moments when the language seemed not so much uninflected as flat. But for atmosphere, originality and plain chutzpah, this is an impressive first collection. Next time I visit East Anglia I’ll be keeping my wits about me.