Rethinking Rural: The New Women Writers of the Countryside

Sarah Harrison Smith on December 21, 2017


Perhaps it’s anxiety about the environment that’s given rise to fiction that’s preoccupied by the ways we interact with the natural world. This year, nature and feminism go hand in hand. Looking back at 2017, three authors stand out for incorporating extraordinary visions of the countryside with some of the best writing of the year. Call them the Rural Feminists? 


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The Dark Dark
By Samantha Hunt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Samantha Hunt’s unnerving, fantastic stories are thick with metamorphoses that, like myths, suggest deeper truths about the human experience. Her narrators -- mostly women gripped by mid-life hormones and identity crises – possess imaginations so powerful that the stories they tell themselves can’t be distinguished from reality. Adultery raises a dog from the dead; a wife invites her husband to share her nightly transformation into a deer; fears about what a spouse might be doing after-hours are resolved by leaving the house open to all dangers, “as if there are no door, no walls, no skin, no houses, no difference between us and all the things we think of as night.” If language is the medium for the tales told in The Dark Dark, it’s the mute communication of animals that offers Hunt’s tormented but wildly creative characters the connection they can only dream of.

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By Fiona Mozley (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
In her breathtaking debut novel, Fiona Mozley imagines what might happen when a small family seeks sanctuary in Elmet, an ancient English forest. Daniel and his teenage sister Catherine live with their benevolent giant of a father on land that once belonged to their now-absent mother. The natural world is kind to them, and they, in turn, treat it with sympathy. Mozley writes in an ecstatic, poetic style that’s well-suited to the deep mysteries she evokes. Take this wild hare: “If the hare was made of myths, then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked where the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and then back into our lives.” Like all Edens, this one is threatened by human greed, but Mozley’s vision of how differently we could live together in nature is strong enough to prevail.

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Fen: Stories
By Daisy Johnson (Graywolf Press)
Daisy Johnson is one of those writers whose voice is so rich, intense, and unexpected, that a story’s worth is about all you can handle in one sitting. Take “Blood Rites,” the second tale in her debut collection, Fen. A pack of feral, foxy girls settle in a small village in the Fens -- marshy countryside in the East of England -- and begin to slake their thirst for men. Already, you’re taken aback, aren’t you? But the girls have miscalculated: they soon find they’re taking on the qualities of their prey. “…Fen men were not the same as the men we’d had before. They lingered in you the way a bad smell did; their language stayed with you.” When one eats an animal-loving veterinarian, it triggers an internal revolution. Johnson is fascinated with metamorphosis, and once you dip into these extraordinary stories, you will be too. Like all the best fantasies, there’s something in Fen that reaches far back into a mythical past when mankind -- let's call it womankind -- was on more intimate terms with the natural world.

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