Daisy Johnson’s first book, Fen (2016), consists of a series of short stories involving teenage girls and young women in various East Anglian towns rife with strange goings-on. In the striking opening story, ‘Starver’, the narrator is a schoolgirl craving affection from her unreachable older sister, whom she helps turn into an eel – a transformation we’re invited to read as a symbol of the older girl’s eating disorder.
Her new book returns to similar terrain. Seventeen-year-old July, her sister, September, who is ten months older than her, and their mother, Sheela, suddenly leave their home in Oxford to stay in a relative’s empty property in Yorkshire. ‘There is only one reason we have left the house in Oxford and come here,’ July tells us, although we’re kept guessing as to what exactly it is. ‘We’re sorry, really sorry, about what happened at the school,’ she tells us; there are hints that it involved a bid for revenge by September after a mean-girl clique at school tricked July into sending a classmate a topless photo.
As usual in Johnson’s fiction, the atmosphere is thick with menace. In bed at night, July feels a strange figure crouching on top of her. September orders her to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise and draw a razor across her throat. There’s an increasingly