16. ‘Fen’ by Daisy Johnson

I saw Fen by Daisy Johnson all over BookTube a couple of years ago and wanted to read it, so I was pleased when it was chosen as the next read for my sci-fi and fantasy book club. I wouldn’t exactly call it sci-fi or fantasy (it’s definitely magical realism), but it is a pretty good read.

fen daisy johnson

Fen is a series of loosely connected short stories all set in the marshy fenlands of East Anglia. The main characters in one story can show up as extras in another (which I love), and they are all struggling with similar obsessions: sex, violence and the slow creep of nature. The wild, wet country makes for a slightly surreal backdrop, and in all these stories it feels as though the creatures of myth might always be lurking just beneath the surface.

Daisy Johnson writes with a very sparse but evocative style. Her stories can move quickly and cover long periods of time, but she’s also good at focusing in on small details and drawing out some really evocative images. For example, I liked how she described a pregnant woman’s body as ‘the moonrise of her stomach’, and a woman thinking of disconnected words as ‘unsentenced, free-floating’.

Women feature prominently in this collection, sometimes powerful, or if not powerful then at least confident in their own desires. They are openly sexual, rather than virginal or repressed; pregnancy and motherhood are frequently explored, and there are some gay relationships too. These female characters are also capable of great violence – in ‘Blood Rites’ three strange sisters start to feel side effects from the men they have eaten. This is a theme for the whole collection: quiet natural beauty with an undercurrent of violence running beneath it. The humans seem to have two choices in the world of Fen: act out the brutality of kill-or-be-killed nature, or be thoroughly absorbed into it by shapeshifting into one of its creatures. The line between human and animal is often blurred.

I really enjoyed some of the stories in this collection. I thought the first story, ‘Starver’ – about a teenage girl who starves herself into the shape of an eel – was very good and quite eerie. I also liked ‘How To Fuck A Man You Don’t Know’ – which tells the story of a relationship, backwards, in short sections of time – and ‘A Heavy Devotion’, about a woman whose son starts stealing her memories. However, I thought the collection began to lose momentum towards the end; some of the later stories revisited the same themes as earlier ones, but not as effectively, and sometimes I felt that there just wasn’t enough description or explanation. Quite often I felt a bit confused, not entirely sure what was going on because the writing was so ethereal and light.

I think Fen is a confident debut from a writer who can clearly write very well. However, I never entirely forgot that it was a debut, and sometimes Johnson makes her world so distant and strange that I couldn’t quite get a grasp on it.

“What they were really talking about … was whether they could bear to set something rolling between them that might never end.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy Fen here.

What do you think?