Stories that Won't Let You Go

Hostages, published by New Island Books.

In 2016, at the age of 25, Irish writer Oisín Fagan had his first collection of stories, Hostages, published by New Island Books.  August 2018 will see the collection published and distributed throughout Britain and the Commonwealth by Head of Zeus. The collection has sold well, only being denied the number one bestseller position in Ireland by J.K. Rowling, and garnered critical acclaim, with The Irish Times asking the question “Oisín Fagan: the best new writer in Ireland?” (Maleney, 2016). As this young writer’s work begins to reach a wider audience, it is interesting to consider whether these stories will resonate with, or appeal to, an international audience.

Oisín Fagan grew up in the village of Moynalvey, Meath. This rural background is the setting of almost all the action in Hostages. When not writing, Fagan is a finance officer at the Irish Housing Network, an organization set up to combat homelessness and the housing crisis in Ireland, and a prolific social activist. Fagan comes from a family of teachers and farmers and, although he was born in Ohio, USA and spent time studying in France, his connection to his family history and to County Meath is palpable. In an article for writing, i.e., giving advice on writing and editing, he states: “Embrace your place, and realise that the particular cannot be universal. You will not speak to everyone, so find out who your people are.” (O’Loughlin, 2016) While it is very true that no piece of literature can speak to everybody, is it possible that the Irish nature of Oisín’s work will make it difficult for him to find success outside his homeland?

Science Fiction meets Magic Realism

The stories in Hostages fall somewhere in length between short stories and novellas.  As Fagan stated in an interview with Storgy Magazine: “My comfort zone is 20,000 words.” (Storgy, 2016). This gives the stories space to develop and the reader time to empathize with the characters, despite the often bizarre situations Fagan places them in. Despite this work having a distinctly rural element, it is dystopian with strong influences of Science Fiction and Magic Realism. In the second story of the collection, “The Sky Over Our Houses”, all policemen in the country have been called away from the countryside to the cities in order to receive special training. During the absence of the police force, mutilated human bodies begin falling from the sky and UFOs are spotted. In this tale, Fagan is able to combine a commentary on rural Ireland being forgotten or used as a dumping ground with elements of Science Fiction, while at the same time making reference to the horror of Argentina’s death flights during the 1974–1983 "Dirty War".

In other stories from the collection Fagan shows a willingness to experiment with traditional narratives. “Being Born” is narrated by a bomb and set in a high school. This idea, which Fagan has stated was influenced by two songs by the American rapper Nas, leads the reader to follow the action with an impending sense of doom, but it is also darkly humorous. This blending of both high-brow and low-brow culture is an element commonly found in Fagan’s writing, and it is clearly displayed in his interviews. When questioned on his influences, he has mentioned the cartoon Pokémon, the comedian Tommy Tiernan and the work of 19th century novelist Stendhal (Storgy, 2016). While his work has been compared to Flann O’Brien, William S. Burroughs, and H.G. Wells, it can be misleading to believe that these similarities are caused by the influence of these writers on his work. He has stated: “A very interesting part of getting this book published has been where people see the influences of different people they admire. It’s been really cool. But I must admit, 95% of the time, I haven’t read any of my supposed influencers!” (Storgy, 2016). This willingness to fit Hostages into the international canon of postmodernist writing suggests that many of the issues raised in the stories are not unique to one locality.

Another element that makes Hostages easy to relate to without any special regional or historical knowledge is the depth of each of Fagan’s characters. The stories feature very few flat characters. While the protagonist of “The Sky Over our Houses” is ex-police sergeant Declan Burke, it is Marianela, his South American cancer victim wife, who can be seen to be the story’s heroic figure. Moreover, Declan Burke is supported by his two young daughters at the end of the story. A recurring theme of strong females is persistent throughout the collection and best exemplified by the protagonist of the final story, “The Price of Flowers”. Maeve is the leader of a post-apocalyptic tribal society threatened by a much more technologically advanced society. She is violent, rude and cannibalistic; however, her use of logic and her fierce attitude make it difficult for the reader not to become impressed by her strength. Fagan has stated: “Maeve is the summation of everyone I’ve ever loved and believed in.” (Storgy, 2016). This belief in, and representation of, women is something male writers often seem incapable of.

Irish stories addressing international fears

While Hostages makes use of specific Irish slang, and at times the use of the Gaelic language without translation, this is no reason for it to be deemed inaccessible. English language speakers around the globe are used to having to accustom themselves to the most culturally dominant forms of English, and the ability to understand from context or quickly look up an expression is a skill most of us have developed. 

This collection of darkly funny, shocking stories plays upon international fears and issues. While the locality may add more flavor and make some political messages appear focused upon Ireland, Fagan deals with issues we all can relate to: high school life (“Being Born”), family loss and suffering (“The Sky Over our Houses”), the feeling of letting down a long line of relatives (“Costellos”), fears of global war and destruction (“No Diamonds”) and escaping a prison of the mind (“The Price of Flowers”). The collection is a startlingly confident and original debut for a short story writer who will hopefully continue to develop his idiosyncratic voice.  

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