208pp, hardback, £12.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
Daisy Johnson’s first story-collection has the impact of a lightning strike. Bold, frank and supremely confident, her voice leaps out of these pages with a startling account of young womanhood. In places, the fear of adult life comes right at you.
Set in the ancient fenland of eastern England, Johnson’s stories move effortlessly through a known landscape of water, water-beasts and watery consequences, while reporting from the front line of modern female identity. A maverick defiance lights the way, a demand to be heard.
‘How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know’ describes a young woman’s impulse towards reckless coupling and then the pulling back as she fights to regain her sense of self. ‘He says you are funny, grasps you round the waist and says you are softening like butter. Listen, you want to tell him. Listen to me.’
Johnson’s opening story, ‘Starver’, is an account of anorexia. In it, a teenage girl keeps her older sister company as she metamorphoses into something that looks ‘like a length of piping’: a body, turning in fact into an eel. In the curiously titled ‘A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle’, feelings flood into two disaffected girls and into the very fabric of the house in which they are experimenting with sex and porn, to alleviate ‘the dull iron of living’. ‘How to Lose It’ compares the sex imperative to ‘riding red lights’; ‘The Superstition of Albatross’ speaks of the fear of responsibility, especially for babies – and with good reason, you think, as you read in ‘A Heavy Devotion’ of the child who takes everything, including his mother’s thoughts, memories and words.
There is blood here aplenty, in a story of cannibalistic sisters and another about men and culling. There is the theme of escape – or, rather, of exchange – as a woman chooses to live with fish, or to make a child out of earth, or to make a bargain with a fox. Always, there is the water and the place, and the horribly familiar prospect of dead-ends.
Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her short fiction has appeared in The Boston Review and The Warwick Review. In 2014, she received the A.M. Heath prize. Read her now.