Fen, by Daisy Johnson, is a book of short stories that explores the idea of wildland and the power it has over those who make their lives on top of it.
The word “fen” refers generally to a type of wetland environment, but in England (where the stories are set, and Johnson is from), it refers specifically to the Eastern part of the country. This region mostly consists of low-lying, marshy, or frequently flooded land, which the English have been somewhat successfully draining and farming since as long as 300 years ago. In the book, the “fen” takes on a dark, sometimes sinister, and always inherently wild energy. The land that the stories are set on refuses to be cultivated. It seeps into the characters and their plots, their ideas, the floors they walk upon and changes them.
You can feel it when you read Johnson’s words. There is an intensity that penetrates every character and story she writes, from the fen and into the reader. Sometimes it is sensual, sometimes angry, sometimes deeply magical, sometimes inhuman, but everything in the book seems to have some sort of black and wiry determination in it. A girl who refuses to eat until her body contorts into the shape of an eel and swims into the marsh. A house jealous of its lodger’s relationships, wanting her for its own. A woman whose mother made her out of clay. All of these have their own unsettling energy, but the fen’s strength is in each story too. It is like its own character, lurking beneath its inhabitants, separate from them but more powerful, and you can see its influence in all of them.
This is what made me like the book. The characters are eerie, but there is something more beneath the surface of all their actions. There is a mysterious force tying them all together. The disturbing personality of the land just really gets me when I read Johnson’s stories. Everything is magical, but in a different way than I have ever read before. The magic wants things and is just evil enough to be real. I have always enjoyed reading fantasy and science fiction, anything that is not like the real world, and this is kind of the same, but it’s in that uncanny valley where it’s wrong, but it feels like it could be right. I almost want it to be real.