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Dark abracadabra: the supernatural adolescents of Daisy Johnson's Fen

Johnson's new collection of stories mixes the occult and banal to place young women at the centre of the picture.

It feels perverse to argue that the stories in this collection could do with more drama. After all, in one of them, a man returns to life as a fox after a fatal argument with his twin brother, who, in a separate story, courts our narrator without guessing that she and her female housemates are cannibals. Yet the gradual seepage of excitement is one of the many peculiar things going on in Daisy Johnson’s startling and inventive debut, which puts a supernatural spin on the trials of women and girls in a small, rural community in Cambridgeshire, topographically recognisable but washed clean of specifics, unless you count the mention of a Travelodge on the A10.

Reckless drinking and after-dark fumbles at the local estuary are among the main ­pursuits in the one-pub town where these tales unfold. We are told of a young man, considered something of a catch, who “liked to take a girl on the bus to the cinema in the city and then to Subway”.

Johnson’s mixing of the occult and the ­banal is a clever way to approach the transformations of youth, with uncanny goings-on a proxy for violent rites of passage. Yet the weirdness in these stories is tinglingly alive on its own terms, seldom calibrated to make us ask what is really happening, despite the lurking subtexts. In “A Heavy Devotion”, a new mother loses the power of speech as her son gains his; in “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle”, a teenager living with her widowed father is attacked by fixtures and fittings after bringing a girl home to bed.

Among the most striking reversals of Johnson’s world is that it is men’s bodies that are scrutinised and consumed (sometimes literally). Caught between sexual insecurity and voracity, the young women here turn the tables on their casual hook-ups. As the narrator of “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know” tells us: “When he says he likes your boobs or that your bottom is tight or that you’re pretty fun aren’t you, you tell him words are cheap enough to spit and push his face the place you want it to go.” Pungent sex scenes shun metaphor and leave inviting blanks: “His hands on your back, yours round his neck, the edge of the bed shifting into that position you like . . .”

The stories in Fen invest familiar scenarios with fresh energy, and yet a sense grows, over the course of the book, that they are written to a formula that might be stretched further. Typically they turn on a striking premise: those man-eating housemates in “Blood Rites”, preying on predictable desires; the husband who dies of a blood clot but comes back from the dead in “Language”; or the woman made of clay in “Birthing Stones”, waiting at a restaurant to meet her internet date.

Then, the conceit established, some bizarre ramifications are catalogued: the cannibals take on the characteristics of their victims; the voice of the resurrected man makes his wife’s nose bleed; the woman on a date hears “the internal crackings of her baked insides, felt the make-up run from her clay skin”.

And often this is where Johnson leaves us, sidestepping any pay-off to skip ahead to the next serving of dark abracadabra. The clay woman finishes her meal – she has been stood up – only for her date to ­arrive. “Emma . . . I’m so sorry,” he says, and the story ends as she is about to reply. The unnamed man-eater tucks in to a veterinary surgeon and finds medical terminology “spilling out in a stream I could not see the end of: adrenal, abdominal, abrin, antipyretic, aortic, arrhythmia . . .”

It is tempting to add “And?” – if only because Fen offers ample evidence of Johnson adding punch to the pizzazz. In “Starver”, the narrator, Suze, is a schoolgirl whose elder sister, Katy, has sworn off food, following the historical example (or so an ominous prologue implies) of local fish that starved themselves to death after the draining of the land where the book is set. Suze colludes in her sister’s deceptions and eventual self-obliteration because of a sense that Katy is allowing her into her life in a way that “she’d never done when I tailed her to netball practice or balanced on the edge of the sofa while she and her friends watched films”. The vista of longing that opens up in this small detail shows just how good Johnson can be when she makes the magic count. l

Fen by Daisy Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape (208pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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