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Fen by Daisy Johnson

Daisy Johnson’s Fen reminds me of that particular blend of British magic realism that is so casual in its mythic and strange elements that it becomes mundane (but never dull) and allows for a greater exploration of character and story. It is bedfellows with Kirsty Logan’s A Portable Shelter, or China Miéville short stories and of course Angela Carter (although she resisted the magic realism label). There’s a thread too to writers like Kelly Link, whose collection Get In Trouble deftly weaves together fable and human relationships.

Johnson’s collection however differs in some ways in its specificity, it is tied uniquely to the Fens: the lowland of marshy east England, home to eels and foxes and countless bored teenagers. This collection of short stories explores this space: the mythic and real qualities of the landscape and its inhabitants. She writes with an easy lyricism, pulling the reader along and rooting them in the worlds she creates. Her characters too are complex and intriguing, full of hidden desires and shifting moralities.

Three stories in particular stood out to me and have stayed with me after reading.

The first in the collection: Starver is an exploration of an eating disorder, told from the point of view of a younger sister watching her older sister decide to stop eating. The descriptions of the older sister’s hiding of food and her shrinking size are handle delicately and realistically. The story then takes an unexpected turn, to say too much would ruin the surprise, but as the first story in the collection it is a perfect introduction to Johnson’s ability to take a narrative we think we know and give it a folkloric twist. Such magic realist elements only work if they further the story, and here it works to perfectly capture the sibling relationship of little sister to big, of keeping secrets from your parents, of watching your older sister go some place you want, but can’t follow, of what it means to what to transform yourself.

Midway through the collection A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle exquisitely handles young love, the intensity and obsession of a first relationship in the shadow of a parental grief and questions the concept of home and sanctuary. The idea of anthropomorphisation takes on a new meaning in the house of the teenage couple.

The last story in the collection The Lighthouse Keeper stands apart in some ways, both physically, at the edges of the Fen and overlooking the sea, but like the rest holds onto its mythical qualities. With links to folklore stories surround fish and granting wishes Johnson again deftly subverts our expectations to comment on our relationship to nature, what it means to be solitary and ways of understanding that circumvent mere speech.

Although each story has a unique voice, they do not stand alone and there are several links to be found between these stories. Most notably the setting, it’s so specific to the Fen and all the stories weave around the same identifiable landscape. There is the local pub, the Fox and Hound, which becomes a landmark, the place teenagers sneak into, where vampiric women pick up men, where the pregnant barmaid decides her future. And of course there always the presence of the Fen: the water level rising or falling, signalling bad omens, hiding flora and fauna, a place for teenagers to run wild and a place for strange hidden things to go or emerge. All Johnson’s stories too, explore the complexities of being a teenager (often a teenage girl) of growing up in a small village where there is nothing to do and you already know everybody. Johnson writes so forcefully, so truthfully, that she makes you believe in a place where foxes maybe really do speak and tell stories, where strange things lurk in the dark and maybe houses really do consume people. Makes you believe in a place where sometimes the greatest thing you have to fear is yourself and what you might do to escape.

A brilliant debut collection, which I would heartily recommend devouring the first chance you get.

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