How do you choose a new book? Most of us start by looking at the title or the cover. Each person has their own private code of colours, typefaces and titles which signal whether a book is bad – consciously or unconsciously.
I like geometric or abstract covers with well-chosen colours; I refuse to read anything with a title that begins “The Girl/Boy Who…” Most of all, I avoid books with one-word titles. These rules of thumb are usually quite accurate. I trust the authors and cover designers to do their job well, and help me find the books I like by creating covers that appeal to me.
But sometimes, you have to break your own rules: because a book comes highly recommended, or you’re in a rush to choose a book before your plane leaves, or because it’s personal. Fen, the first collection of short stories from Daisy Johnson, ticked all those boxes for me.
I was suspicious at first. When a book gets described as a “heady broth” by the Guardian, then you have to be at least a little sceptical. What’s more, most of the stories are about adolescence, which is always boggy ground for writers. Trying to write about teenagers makes most of us sound old. Fortunately, Johnson is a rare exception, with a strong and convincing voice.
She writes evocatively about the English fens, which are (in this reviewer’s opinion) an extremely under-rated part of the country. She writes about the strange, dark earth, the pools and canals that cover the region, the flocks of birds; the weather, sometimes bad-tempered, sometimes beautiful; and the depth of myth and history that covers everything like a thin sheet of floodwater.
She also writes about growing up as a girl in a bad world. The toxic, peaty sludge of unwritten rules, forbidden thoughts, and self-hatred that pools around innocent adolescent bodies.
It is a well-known fact – but rarely reported or discussed – that girls in England are suffering. They have terrifyingly high rates of anorexia and self-harm. They are as vulnerable to abuse as they have ever been. They do brilliantly at school, then crash out of life in their late teens and early twenties, unable to keep up the façade any longer. On the internet, and in real life, they push each other into more and more extreme behaviour. They are objectified, brutalized, minimized, doubted, silenced, and shamed.
Johnson uses the weirdness of the fens to make the weirdness of female adolescence tangible. There is the story about the girl who starves herself until she can become an eel, and live unnoticed and unbothered in the fenland waterways. It’s as good a depiction of anorexia as any I’ve read.
Women, their bodies and their sexuality are, in Johnson’s stories, violent. Violent in the unpredictable, inexorable way that water is violent: you never see it coming. There are women who kill men, women who humiliate men, women who bring men back from the dead or leave out other women as bait.
On one level, this appeals to me. It’s refreshing to read a book where women are powerful, and their power is acknowledged. But at the same time, and outside the covers of the book, I see my own gender and sexuality as a positive power. Power can be bad, or even just blindly neutral (like the power of water) – but it can also be good. There has to be some good in the world, doesn’t there?
This is why the fenland setting is so necessary. If Johnson’s stories were open to the wider world, then people would be able to escape and change. As it is, she traps all her characters within the fens, and offers them no choices beyond eat or be eaten.
This is a book with a voice and message all its own. If you appreciate the craft of short stories, or just good story-telling in general, then you will get a lot out of it. But let me end with a caveat emptor: I recognize the world of Fen, but I don’t want to live in it. And anyone else who sees themselves in these stories, especially young women, should know that there are other endings available.
You can buy the book here.