Fen Stories (by Daisy Johnson) = 4/5

Daisy Johnson’s debut book, Fen Stories, is a marvelous collection of weird magical realism inspired by England’s fenlands. Johnson’s prose is intense and passionate, and it yanks you into each story as if you were swimming and someone suddenly reached up from below and pulled you under the surface. Her writing style is almost a cross between China Mieville, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ray Bradbury. I love it.

Fen Stories is heady–and heavy–stuff. The stories themselves feature transformation, death, love, sex, jealousy, independence, hate, romance, suspicion, theft, embarrassment, fear, superstition, and more. The narrators of the different stories are all female (at least, as far as I can recall), and their range of agency varies. In some stories, the narrators are observers, recounting stories they’ve seen or events they observe in their own lives, while in others, the narrators are in control, making the choices, moving events along rather than the other way around. There are some meta aspects to the collection as well, as some of the stories later in the book contain references harkening back to stories you’ve already read.

I picked up Fen Stories at my local library; the title caught my eye (fens have intrigued me since I first read about them in The Golden Compass), and the short paragraph blurb on the back pulled me in because the stories it highlights– “a teenager might starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A boy might return from the dead in the guise of a fox.”– all sounded like ideas I would come up with.

I randomly opened the book, skimmed a few paragraphs to get a feel for Johnson’s writing style. I liked it, but wasn’t sure I was ready to invest my time. I checked Goodreads reviews to see if they might help me make up my mind, and got as far as the review that begins, “i liked it. but i was expecting more landscape..”, and thought, “This is exactly the kind of book I’m looking for.”

My favorite stories in the collection were probably “Blood Rites”, “A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle”, “How to Lose It”, “How to Fuck A Man You Don’t Know”, “The Scattering: A Story in Three Parts”, and “The Lighthouse Keeper”.

“Blood Rites” is about a trio of women who hunt and eat men, but find the men of the fenlands are very different from those they preyed upon in Paris. “A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle” is about a girl who falls in love with another girl she meets at the theater, and then how her house falls in love with the girl from theater, too. “How to Lose It” is about losing one’s virginity, but the story jumps between a mother’s experience–losing hers to a bike handle–versus that of her daughter’s–a guy from a swimteam, at the pool–and back to the mother’s pregnancy and relationship with the father. “How to Fuck A Man You Don’t Know” is about that, but told as a countdown with events presented in reverse (at least, that’s what I think is going on this story); I found the structure and style of this one very engaging. “The Scattering” is about a sister’s relationship with her big brothers as they grow up, and her attempts to spend time with them; one dies and comes back as a fox. “The Lighthouse Keeper” is about a female lighthouse keeper who hunts, and then befriends, a very strange fish.

My summaries of the aforementioned stories give the basic gist of the different plots, but it would take too much space for me to highlight the different characterizations and prosaic or surreal elements of each captured my attention.

Overall, I thought the stories in the first half of the collection were tighter than the second, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying those at the end of the book, too.

TL;DR: If you’re looking for very British magical realism (or even just some solid weird, haunting fiction) that focuses on interpersonal relationships with a distinct, memorable prose, Fen Stories is the book for you.

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