Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

"Fen" by Daisy Johnson (Vintage, 2017)

Stories from Boston Review, Warwick Review, etc.

"Starver" begins somewhat puzzlingly with a section about eels starving themselves to death when land is drained. Then the main story begins. The narrator knows that her sister's starving herself. A bout of hospitalisation doesn't help. At the end the narrator carries her to a canal and releases her. Throughout the story there are hints of transformation and a liking for water. The end gives sense to the beginning.

In "Blood Rites" 3 weird sisters move to the Fens from Paris. They scavenge for food then start preying on men. But "fen men were not the same as the men we'd had before. They lingered in you the way a bad smell did; their language stayed with you" (p.25).

In "A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle" a house, jealous about its female occupant's girlfriend (Margot), absorbs her. The house then becomes jealous about the boys she casually brings home. I thought that Margot was going to be caught having sex with the father rather than be absorbed.

In "How to lose it" we start in 1999 when Isobel's losing her virginity after some thought - "Helen said she was holding out, said he didn't want it bad enough yet. It was the lingo of sales and stocks; what was the best deal, when was the right time to sell it all" (p.42). Then we jump to 2014 when inspired by her mother, her daughter decides to lose her virginity early. Then we return to 1999 to find out how Isobel's pregnancy on a houseboat progresses - "Finn curled close for warmth, one hand held against the moonrise of her stomach" (p.52).

"How to F**k a man you don't know" is told backwards in 9 episodes.

"Language" was in "Best British Story Stories 2017". A husband who dies young returns, but his words physically hurt the listeners. His wife (who at 16 "knew the ins and outs of string theory", p.73) tries to characterize the effect. She tries writing instead, and sign-language ("his hands were the size of books flattened open", p.88, is maybe over-the-top), then considers exorcism. Charles E. May said that "The problem of the story is that there is no causal or metaphoric connection between the female initiation theme at the beginning and the return to life zombie story at the end. Even more important, there is no meaningful connection between language and physical harm." Maybe.

"The Superstition of albatrosses" seemed ordinary until an albatross/stork smashes through the kitchen window of a pregnant woman, her husband at sea, unlikely to return.

The baby in "A Heavy Devotion" steals his single mother's words, and the memories that go with them. She wonders often "how he would have been if his father were a man", (p.114). Later the son becomes a cult figure. Perhaps at the end he returns to complete his duty.

"The Scattering" is 3 titled pieces, the first less than a page long - the main character lets a fox out of a house after a meeting of minds. In the second part Matilda had a brother, Arch, and Marco, his twin. "he'd come to her with a story burning so hot in his mouth he couldn't help but tell it: the house that fell in love with a girl, the girl that starved into a fish" (p.119). The twins fight, say they hunt foxes - "Fen foxes were a bigger, wiser, more knowing stuff of a being" (p.123) than city foxes. Marco leaves to live with a girl who soon gets pregnant. Matilda, 15, starts drinking with Arch and his mates. The twins go chasing foxes again. There's some kind of accident and Arch dies. Matilda believes that a fox has inherited his soul. She goes out, releases a fox from a trap, nurses it at home. The first section chronologically follows.

"Birthing Stones" - while waiting for a first-time date to arrive at a restaurant, a woman thinks about what will happen when he finally arrives, and about her past, her mother's wish to have children. She thinks that her mother created her from two buckets of mud - "Fen mud was not like the mud forced to yield crops in other places. Darker than that and wetter and the first child formed on the kitchen table was something of the same", (p.163). "On hot days she heard the internal cracklings of her baked insides, felt the make-up run from her clay skin", (p.165). He turns up after she's finished eating and is about to leave.

"Cull" - a fox cull was mentioned in "The Scattering". This story has the least magic and might be the most impressive, though if you read it after having read the other stories you might feel this is a shuffling of already-played cards - "foxes were getting into houses, into locked bedrooms", (p.171). Men gather at a farm-house where the narrator's the only woman. A horse is bled as bait. She visits the horse, then sees a fox - "She did not look away from the fox and, though already there was movement growing and growing around them, the fox did not look away either", (p.176). The End. Earlier "she ... cupped her fingers around [her husband's] legs", (p.173) and "The horse's nose came heavily down onto the cup of her arm", (p.176). Does she identify with the fox - alone, knowingly attracted and doomed? Are the horse and her husband being equated?

In "The Lighthouse keeper", the main character is a female loner who encounters an unusual fish (yet again, an animal is credited with super-powers). "Fish like that could breathe air and travel on land - of that she was relatively certain.", (p.178). "It was the fish that had done it ... it stopped her reading or tidying or doing much of anything", (p.178). It's electric - "it could have stung her and did not ... it moved with an almost human intelligence. Not a food source or a pretty thing to watch but, maybe, a friend", (p.184). She hires a boat. When one night she thinks that others are gathering on the shore about to catch it she sets fire to the lighthouse (the inverse of burning your boats) and starts swimming, waiting for her fish.

The borders between Nature, animals and humans are porous. Even when there aren't transformations, there are similes - "The globe was comprised of bone and organ, the mandible of the sea, the larynx and thyroid, the scapula and vertebrae that held it all together" (p.22); "The first time they talked about baby names he said he thought it wouldn't be human" (p.53); "Human children that would come with the tides and have gills as well as lungs, webs between their toes and fingers. The fox child was the clever one" (p.56); "[men] were like dogs at the racetrack" (p.65). All pubs are the "Fox and Hound" where quick lays are available. Boys climb up drainpipes, have big hands, get jobs on boats. Hair goes grey in streaks. Young girls decide tonight's the night to lose their virginity. Young fathers-to-be seem ok, then disappear.

Certainly worth a read, though the weirdness becomes rather predictable after a while. The writing's excellent. Comparisons with Angela Carter (or in the States, Karen Russell) are inevitable, but let's not forget Padrika Tarrant.

Other reviews

  • Sarah Crown (sturdy details save the stories from edging into whimsy; more than that, their mundanity contributes to the collection’s creepiness. ... At its best, Johnson’s heady broth of folklore, female sexuality and fenland landscape reads like a mix of Graham Swift and Angela Carter. The collection isn’t always at its best, of course; the all-female cast list seemed to feel a little undifferentiated by the end, and there were moments when the language seemed not so much uninflected as flat. But for atmosphere, originality and plain chutzpah, this is an impressive first collection.)
  • Michael Shaub (Johnson prefers to lead with the ominous and make it even darker. Not many writers can pull that off. She can. In some ways, Fen reads like a pastoral answer to the fiction of Angela Carter ... The book's finest story is "The Scattering," told in three parts.)
  • Hermione Hoby (Virginity, that “half-starved dog” you “wanted to give away as quickly as possible,” is a perennial preoccupation ... Elsewhere, characters can be strained thin by their narrator’s wish for them to be more than they are. ... By the book’s end, we see the associations running between these stories like tributaries. The prey of “Blood Rites,” a man who uses the rote monosyllables of porn “with a regularity which dried them meaningless,” is both the surviving twin of “The Scattering” and the absent sailor in “The Superstition of Albatross”; the girl turned eel of “Starver” seems to be the fish “with an almost human intelligence” in the final story.)
  • Matthew Adams (The stories in which these compelling inventions feature are also stylistically arresting. Johnson is possessed of the rare ability to trust in the power of language, and this allows her to trust in the force and the fecundity of her voice. ... Such particularity of perception is rare and refreshing, and this sense of invigoration is intensified both by Johnson’s commitment to placing women at the heart of her stories (so much so that, at one stage, a lighthouse keeper is described as “womaning” her radio), and by the attentiveness she brings to the business of imbuing their narratives with elegance, pattern, shape.)
  • Goodreads (Some very interesting ideas here, but the stories become quite repetitive because of the interchangeable female characters. ... Stories which came after “The Scattering: a story in three parts” faltered for me. ... I found that the further I got, the more bored I got. Being a book of short stories, it's hard to create a climax and I really felt this is what it lacked. It sort of dragged on. Also, I felt that maybe it tried a little bit too hard to be weird. ... I adored the first two stories. Other stories made me feel uncomfortable. But then The stories all seemed to merge into one for me. )

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