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