Oisín Fagan’s debut short story collection comes with some high-profile recommendations from Jospeh O’Connor and Colin Barrett and he has since gained critical acclaim for his debut novel Nobber.
Hostages consists of just five stories – which begin weird and get weirder – all set in a post-apocalyptic Ireland, or County Meath to be exact. I hesitate to call them science-fiction, but I suppose that’s what they are. All are infused with a dark, dangerous humour and all feature individuals railing against the system that is trying to contain them.
In the title story, a group of transition-year students can’t take it anymore. Their friend has been expelled for drug-dealing and the hot soup has been discontinued in the canteen. They have had enough with being told what to do and their gathering rebellion is reaching boiling point. A modern take on the inherent dehumanising nature of systems, what differentiates Hostages from your average story is that it is told from the point of view of a home-made bomb.
The school isn’t the students , or the teachers, or even the school itself: it’s a syste, and the system is sheeding its hostages; its deadweight; that non-negotiable lump that grows inside it like cancer, because there is something unaccepatable in the hostage…it always believes it is worth something, that it has some value, and therefore the system has no choice but to expel it.
In The Sky Over Our Houses, the farmers of rural Meath are dealing with a plague of dead bodies, which are falling from the sky. Initially repulsed and terrified, the community comes together to work out a way to dispose of the bodies, and to rail against what they see as discrimination against people who live outside of a city environment.
I know at least four farmers who haven’t been able to work for the past week with all the palaver, and I’m one of them. This has to stop. Our community is being attacked. I was up in Trim this morning and I noticed that there’s been no bodies fropped there. No bodies in any of the cities and towns, which means that this is yet another attack on rural Ireland.
Fagan takes us further into the future in No Diamonds, where acid rain, synthetic cheese and jobs mining for fake diamonds are keeping the people of Meath in their place, while in The Price of Flowers a tribe of matriacrhs, led by the fearless and fearsome Maeve, fight for survival until only one, human female is left alive.
This is heady, anarchic stuff – sometimes confusing, but always exciting – using the tropes of sci-fi to explore modern-day issues in Ireland like Direct Provision, the treatment of women and influence of Church and State. It is shot through with a dark humour, reminiscent at times of Flann O’Brien
‘Ah shite,’ she said when she saw another body splayed out on the doorstep.
‘Janey Mac,’ Declan groaned. ‘It’s getting congested in these parts. I’ll move that heap when I get a cup of tea.’
In Fagan’s worlds, the women are in charge and the collection is filled with some fantastic female characters, from the gutsy Sharon in Hostages to the even gutsier Marianela in The Sky Above our Houses, who sees in the dead bodies falling on her land, echoes of the Argentinian junta who disappeared her sister. Marianela doesn’t let a thing like terminal stomach cancer stop her from getting to the truth.
Overall, this is a pretty gruesome collection, with dead bodies piling up all over the place, but the humour, fanntastic ear for dialogue and sheer audacious originality that underpins all the stories make them surprisingly entertaining. The bizarre and the everday meld and the overarching theme is that individuals can be strong against the machine, but a collective is better. As Fagan himself says
Maybe everyone’s an individual in Hostages, because that’s the basic organising unit within a plot, but they have to be understood through the lens of community more, the dialectic, the state, or politics. The individual is something literature segues into a lot, because it invites you to be familiar with a person, to put emphasis on them rather than others.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!