Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2017. 208 pages. $16.00.
In her diary, Virginia Woolf wrote of the “attractive but impossible task of describing the Fens.” She longed for “one expressive quotation” to capture the landscape; instead, she ended up with “so much feeble word painting.” The Fens is difficult to describe, in part, because it shouldn’t exist, at least not in its current form. Britain’s east formerly consisted of swampy floodplains that were mostly uninhabitable. Human settlement was concentrated on small “islands” that rose above the waterlogged marshes, where people survived by trapping eels and hunting fowl. After 200 years and many false starts, the area was systematically drained and transformed into rich farmland that exists there today. Ordnance surveys of the region show not only the large waterways like the River Ouse (where Woolf would later take her own life), but also the extensive drains and ditches that border fields of beets, potatoes, pumpkins, and rapeseed.
“The land was drained,” explains the narrator in the first story of Daisy Johnson’s debut story collection:
They caught eels in great wreaths, headless masses in the last puddles, trying to dig into the dirt to hide. They filled vats of water to the brim with them: the eels would feed the workforce brought in to build on the wilderness. There were enough eels to last months; there were enough eels to feed them all for years.
But the eels have another plan. In what is seen by the characters as an act of revenge, the eels refuse to eat. They reject rats, sardines, bread, offal, starving themselves to the bones.
It was, they were certain, a calling down of something upon the draining. Some said they heard words coming from the ground as the water was pumped away and that was what made the eels do it, starve themselves that way.
In the end, the townspeople shovel the dying fish into large piles and set them ablaze.
The stories in Fen are rooted in the landscape but only loosely inspired by the region’s history. By beginning here, Johnson seems to suggest that the unnatural draining of the fens was the signal event for the surreal events that unfold in a modern world: a girl starves herself into the shape of an eel. A dead brother returns as a rather bossy fox. An albatross settles in at a kitchen table. A house falls in love with a girl. There are consequences, these stories imply, for draining the swamp.
Johnson’s stories are compulsively readable, keeping you perched on the edge. You think you know what’s happening, but you’re not entirely certain, and while the mystery itself is enough to keep one reading, it’s the writing that really captures the attention. Johnson employs fragments regularly and to great effect. Her sentences tend to be short and declarative. Dialogue is clipped and rarely extends beyond a single line of text. “Blood Rites” provides an example of both the mystery of these stories and the sharp prose. Halfway through the story, the female narrator picks up a man at the pub and brings him home, where her two friends—Greta and Arabella—wait in nightgowns. The man doesn’t seem surprised to see them there. They engage in a little small talk, but what follows isn’t sex. Greta “got the first try” because she had “been hungry the longest.” The two other girls “asked her if he had the flavor of love and [Greta] only smiled a scarlet smile and said he tasted the way burrowing into the earth, mouth whaling open, would taste.” The reader approaches this moment knowing something is strange about the seduction, but cannibalism probably isn’t on the radar. But there were clues along the way. All those references to hunger were not just some stand-in for passion or desire but also a nod to the literal. The night Greta returned home with roadkill is seen in a new light, as is the time when an uneasy Arabella raids the butcher and returns home to cook “a storm of meat pies, of roasted birds inside birds and thick, heavy, unidentified stews.” The narrative has prepared us for ravenous rapture, yet the cannibalism is still shocking. As Johnson closes the door on one mystery, another opens up:
The next day we woke with a strangeness inside us we could not identify. Tried to stave it off with our favorite songs, our best dresses, opened all the windows to air the house through.
I feel—Greta started to say and Arabella gave her a look good and hard enough to silence her. Said: I’ll paint your nails.
I lay watching them. I felt heavy, ached through. Not full—rather bored, weary.
I feel—Greta started again.
Stop it, Greta, Arabella said. It’s fine.
But things are not fine, and the story closes in an unexpected and completely satisfying way.
Johnson isn’t afraid to experiment with structure. The best example comes in “The Scattering,” a three-part story that begins with the final scene before leaping back in time to move chronologically through the narrator’s troubling and intimate relationship with her brother. The structure here serves to foreground both the surreal aspects of this world and the emotional wound left after a brother’s disappearance. Other stories that play with structure are somewhat less successful. “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know,” for example, is divided into nine sections and told in reverse chronological order. Ultimately the countdown becomes predictable and flattens rather than heightens the tension, but even when the structure falters Johnson still delivers with a fresh and frank portrayal of female sexuality and desire.
As with any linked story collection, there’s the question of what holds these twelve stories together. There’s the obvious: geography, landscape, a shared history, and recurring landmarks. We return again and again to the Fox and Hound Pub where characters work, drink, party, flirt, and meet for liaisons. The sets are functional and provide sufficient texture to envision the region and its people. But two other elements provide a more subtle link. One is the way Johnson weaves folklore, myth, and superstition through the stories. Another is water. One character jokes about the draining and is stared down, “as if this were a thing you could not mention, were not allowed to mention.” Another character imagines “the flood water was starting to rise back across the flats so it could hear her confess.” Still another imagines giving birth to “human children that would come with the tides and have gills as well as lungs, webs between their toes and fingers.” From the moment the area is drained in the first story’s first sentence, water remains a presence, hovering at the edge of the character’s lives, ready to reclaim whatever it can, in whatever way it can.
“The fen plays you false at every step,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal. “I walked through a jungle of reeds & fell up to my nose in mud.” Maybe she got the description right after all.