Fen, a debut short story collection by Daisy Johnson, is captivating. While the characters and stories are not formally connected, meaning the characters from one story don’t know the characters from another, they are all set in the marshy Fenland region of eastern England. The local pub, the Fox and Hound, is visited by characters in more than one story and is the not-so-metaphorical watering hole of the weird and wild people who populate these stories.
There is a mystical quality to these stories, which feel almost like they could be lost tales of the Brothers Grimm. There’s a connectedness to nature which makes the characters fluid–maybe a boy is really a fox, maybe a girl can become an eel–and reminds me of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and To the Bright Edge of the World. Johnson shows the raw and confusing emotions that are a natural part of adolescence and early adulthood. I can almost imagine a couple of these stories as surreal (or perhaps it’s magical realism?) retellings of 90’s standard girl reading material, as if Sweet Valley High or the Babysitter’s Club were full of girls yearning to be women…who just happened to do so by eating the men they date or having an affair with a sentient house. If I’ve made these stories sound strange, it’s because they are, but rarely have I seen the pain of growing up explained so truthfully.