The soggy, silty open landscape that stretches unbroken from Cambridge to England's eastern coast provides the setting and the title for "Fen," Daisy Johnson's debut collection of stories. Johnson grew up around the Fen and is familiar with, and intrigued by, the lay of the land.
Readers expecting her tales to be as flat and featureless as her backdrop will be pleasantly surprised, then impressed. These original and sure-footed stories remap bland terrain and reconfigure ordinary lives, revealing mystical goings-on, unpredictable outcomes and unsettling truths.
All 12 of Johnson's tales focus on women at various pivotal stages of adolescence or young adulthood: learning, failing, falling in and out of love, having sex for the first time, getting pregnant.
"Starver," the book's opener, sets the scene, conveys the mood and gives a foretaste of the oddities that lie ahead. A girl worries about her sister, Katy, who has decided to stop eating. "I wondered what she was running on, air or determination or anger or something or nothing or someone." After being hospitalized, Katy returns home, locks herself in the bathroom — and transforms into an eel.
"There were too many eels," we are told at the beginning, "and not enough men." Men are thin on the ground throughout the book, popping up only as fleeting lovers, silent partners or lightly sketched siblings — perfect foils to the more rounded, complex, multifaceted women. In Johnson's second story, "Blood Rites," fenland men could soon be in very short supply. Three women lure them home, kill them, then eat them.
In each story, Johnson ensures that we are firmly anchored in reality by highlighting prosaic day-to-day activities. Characters drink in the oft mentioned Fox and Hound pub. They smoke, swear, work, wash the dishes and walk the fields. But then Johnson catches us unawares by abruptly inserting pockets of bizarre violence, shape-shifting antics or mercurial mood shifts. A dead brother returns — possibly — to his sister in the form of a fox. A husband is forced to relearn his own language. One standout tale begins as a simple story about a girl's sexual awakening and then warps into blackly comic fantasy in which a jealous house devours unwelcome visitors.
While strange happenings routinely disorient us, we are always alert to Johnson's more striking descriptions. One woman sees "the ends and starts of conversations swimming up and then receding into the loud." Another visualizes "doors eyeing out from walls, stairs descending in quiet conversation towards the floor." Only Johnson's final three tales, which make up a section of their own, disappoint: the language stripped-back, the drama low-key, the protagonists anonymous and interchangeable.
Otherwise, "Fen" is a potent, sometimes riotous blend of convention and invention: Think the fanciful flourishes of Karen Russell and Kelly Link playing out amid "the flats, the washes, the threat of braided rivers." These are stories to delight in, delivered with poise and suffused with impish magic.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.