Book review: Hostages

One of the standouts in Dave Lordan’s Young Irelanders collection of new Irish writers in 2015, Oisin Fagan won the Penny Dreadful litmag’s €10,000 novella award this summer for The Hierophants and followed it up by releasing Hostages.

Book review: Hostages

Oisin Fagan

New Island €12.95

Consisting of five stories, ranging from 17 pages to almost 90, Fagan lets his imagination run wild as an apocalypse descends on Ireland and the surviving inhabitants of Co Meath — Moynalvey, to be exact — just try to get on with things.

It’s uproarious, confusing, maddening, and confirms the 25-year-old as the most exciting young writer in the country.

The Hierophants is a hilarious, literary scandal/delusion that acts as critique of academia while in thrall to Flann O’Brien. It doesn’t really prepare you for what’s in store across Hostages, though.

Fagan told “If you only read modern US authors, British authors, Irish authors, books published in the last 120 years, and then model your narrative structures on them, you are reproducing an endless system of boredom that runs throughout the world.”

In his debut collection, Fagan rails against boredom. ‘Costellos’, the shortest story in Hostages, is almost the hardest to follow, charting the genealogy — and tragedies — that befall the Costello line from 1574 to 2111. It’s a riotous ride down the centuries.

The first story is a modern parable of the folly of systems, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. Except it’s set in a nondescript school and involves transition-year pupils angry at drugdealer Steo’s expulsion. And that their soup dinners have been discontinued.

The uprising is led by Fergus Nolan, “crustiest of vanguards, soup-bandit, downwardly mobile teacher-assaulter from a privileged background, ranter who stands on teachers’ cars during class time; six Ds in the Junior Cert and two of them at ordinary level, who cried every morning in first year he was so scared of big school” — that’s the principal describing him, over the intercom.

‘The Sky Over Our Houses’ sees the farmers of Meath being plagued by bodies dropping from the sky. They trip over them, ignore them, and eventually line up their trucks to incinerate them.

At its heart is the tetchy though reliant relationship between ex-sergeant Declan Burke and his partner Marianela. She’s dying of cancer but when they go to Dublin for treatment, their vehicle can’t make it down O’Connell St because hundreds of disabled people are clogging the streets celebrating, having had their benefits reinstated.

Marianela, like other characters across the stories, is a strong, smart female presence.

“These fucking men,” she sighs at a meeting of the locality.

“This is our community and we cannot let it be hijacked by assholes. Women, stop letting your men treat you like coathangers, letting them speak for you like they think they can.”

These stories, though outlandish, are based on the crises that are coming to define modern Ireland. ‘No Diamonds’ is dedicated to the “homeless children who are growing up in this country, either in emergency accommodation or in the inhumane system of direct provision. If the future is to be worth anything, it will belong to them.”

‘The Price of Flowers’ finds Local Maeve, who is told she is imprisoned in herself, just trying to survive. She’s the last human, the last woman, the last daughter, chased by the feelers.

It’s not quite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — it’s too entertaining for that — but it’s a paranoid, deranged culmination.

Throughout Hostages, bodies pile up, death becomes commonplace, cursing is as imaginative as The Thick of It, and family bonds try to fight the new powers. Hostages holds up as one of the most ambitious books of the past year.

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