Review: Fen, Daisy Johnson

It took me a while to get into the stories of Fen by Daisy Johnson, and then it took me a little while to get out of them again. Reading these stories is like getting lost in the blurry, muddy fenland that Johnson is writing about. At some point you begin to question what is real and, perhaps most importantly, what is human.

Fen is a collection of short stories that take place in the liminal space of the fen – where nature and civilisation meet, where boundaries between the magical and the everyday are blurred. It’s a space where things can be multiple things. A fox can talk. A girl turns into an eel. A son is born and immediately begins to steal his mother’s identity and language. A house falls in love with a girl.

The stories are weird, the language as rich and earthy as the landscape itself. Certain people and places pop up throughout the tales – and in that way you understand that this place shares a common mythology of what has happened to the land, and what is happening to its people.

As I am planning to write about Fen in my dissertation, I took particular care to take my time when consuming Johnson’s prose, arming myself with highlighter and pencil (sorry, not sorry) to hone in on the details and descriptions of the landscape. I feel like this text is so ripe to write about and I’m excited that as it’s relatively new, I get to be one of the first people to do so in a literary context.

I’ve been reading a bit of ecocriticism as well as watching Johnson’s interviews on YouTube and there’s already so much I can’t wait to draw out of her packed and lyrical stories. I’ll be looking at how landscapes are written, thinking in particular about folklore and the place of women. As every story in Fen is told from a female perspective, particularly from the perspectives of teenagers on the cusp of womanhood, there is certainly much to consider in terms of female sexuality and what it means to be a woman. Johnson herself said that it was important she only wrote about women in this environment, and it’s going to be my job to work out how and why she does this.

Overall, I can see that Fen might not be to everyone’s tastes – it’s unashamedly literary and quite obscure. I spent a lot of time wondering exactly what was happening and feeling generally slightly uneasy. But I also really enjoyed being sucked into this landscape and the people (and creatures) that inhabit it, and then being spat out at the end.

The joy of writing about texts like this in a critical way is that I get to be the person to excavate it, to dig deep and see what I can find. I’m weirdly looking forward to it.

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