One of my reading resolutions for 2016 is to read more Scottish literature (the other is simply to read at least one classic each month). During the late eighties and throughout the nineties I read most new Scottish novels or short story collections which fell under the category of ‘literary fiction’. This meant encountering Alasdair Gray and James Kelman (who had first been published at the beginning of the eighties), Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith and writers now less well known (for example Jeff Torrington, whose Swing Hammer Swing! was recently reprinted by Vintage Classics; or James Meek who later found fame with The People’s Act of Love). It’s also the reason I possess a copy of Iain Rankin’s first novel, The Flood, published by Edinburgh University imprint Polygon. In fact, Polygon was responsible for the first (UK) publication of Kelman, Galloway and Kennedy; Gray’s Lanark was published by Canongate, also based in Edinburgh. Of course Polygon is no more and Canongate is largely indistinguishable from other UK publishers (bar its Canongate Classics series).

However, the main reason I drifted away from Scottish fiction was the feeling that it wasn’t very interesting anymore. Rankin must take at least some of the blame for this: ever since he decided to become a great crime writer rather than a great writer, an army of Scottish writers have followed in his wake, so much so that a new sub-genre, Tartan Noir, has been created. I was recently surprised to discover my view was shared by Adrian Searle, founder of Freight Books, one of a number of exciting new Scottish publishers:

“Saying Scottish fiction is boring is, of course, a vast generalisation, and I wouldn’t be in this business if it was all like that, but as someone who reads large amounts of Scottish fiction as part of my job, I’ve come to believe that, as a literary culture, we’ve become infantilised. We set the bar of quality lower for our own literature than that from elsewhere.”

Ironically, Freight is at the forefront of some interesting new voices in Scottish fiction, a prime example being Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet, winner of last year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize. Fishnet is a novel about prostitution; that is, as well as doing everything else a novel does, it unambiguously sets itself up to explore this particular issue and our attitudes to it. Clearly there is danger that this function overwhelms the narrative and that the novel becomes little more than an outlet for the author’s research; that this doesn’t happen is testament to Innes’ skill, in what is her first novel.

Innes has the confidence to begin with a series of short, disconcerting chapters, the first a prelude to the main story, in which two young women wake up after a night spent in a hotel room with a DJ. One is clearly more innocent than the other: “Cam, he left us like, cash…” Innes disguises the identity of the first girl by using the second person, at the same time demanding that the reader place themselves in her position. This is followed with a brief glimpse of the first person narrative which will make up the majority of the novel describing a scrapbook of missing persons. Before we can become acquainted, however, we encounter a third section entitled About Me… – a series of adverts for female escorts:

“Whatever your looking for a brief encounter or a longer date, Sabrina offers a truly sophisticated girlfriend experience!!!”

From this point on the novel is largely told by our first person narrator, Fiona Leonard, whose sister Rona (we discover) went missing seven years before, but it will continue to be interrupted with material from the internet, in particular the blog posts of certain sex workers Fiona comes to follow, one of those rare occasions where the use of a blog genuinely enhances the novel. Fiona’s monotonous, dead-end job largely consists of making photocopies, phone-calls and tea. She lives in the flat above her parents, who help her look after Beth. Since her sister went missing her life has narrowed to work and child. Two coincidences connect her to the world of prostitution: new information she discovers about her sister on a hen night in the town where she last lived; and the involvement of her construction company in the closure of a refuge. Fiona’s journey into that world becomes our own as she seeks understanding as well as information.

Innes is careful not divorce the issue of sex work from that of gender politics: from the hen party onwards the novel shows an astute awareness of the roles women are given and adopt. The male gaze is never far away:

“Heather came tottering over. We’d dressed her in a white basque and pink fishnet stockings tonight, veil, tiara and a pink garter to hang her L-plates off. The men were watching her from their corners, watching her wobble and shake.”

Fishnet succeeds on every level: as a character portrait, a missing person thriller, an exploration of sexuality, and a re-evaluation of sex work (and work in general) If it doesn’t at least give you pause for thought, you must have come to it very enlightened indeed.

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16 Responses to “Fishnet”

  1. A Little Blog of Books Says:

    Great review. I read Fishnet earlier this month but haven’t reviewed it yet and agree that it’s an astutely written novel which isn’t swamped in research. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Not the Booker Prize in future as I probably wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise.

    • 1streading Says:

      The novel got a fair amount of publicity in Scotland so I had heard of it. Now that I’ve read it I can see why it won Not the Booker. It was the skill with which Innes explored her topic without you ever feeling it didn’t work as a novel which impressed me the most.

  2. Melissa Beck Says:

    This review really piqued my curiosity. I haven’t read very much Scottish Literature either and I should really put more books from this country on my TBR pile.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Interesting introduction, Grant. With the exception of Ali Smith’s books, I’ve read very little in the way of Scottish literature in recent years. It’s good to hear that a number of new voices are beginning to emerge…would you add Kirsty Logan to that list too? (I can’t recall if you’ve reviewed any of her books? The Rental Heart, perhaps?)

    • 1streading Says:

      I haven’t read any of Logan’s books but she’s very much on my radar for this year – I have The Rental Heart on Kindle. Ali Smith is one writer I’ve continued to follow since reading her first collection – I’ve got Public Library waiting to be read as well.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on both of those. I now regret passing up the chance to buy a copy of Public Library in the sale at Foyles. I plumped for David Mitchell’s Slade House instead – turned out to be something of a disappointment.

      • 1streading Says:

        Mine was a Christmas present. As I have three unread Mitchell novels at the moment, I’m unlikely to be buying anymore!

  4. crimeworm Says:

    That’s an interesting argument about Tartan Noir lowering the bar for Scottish literature as a whole. I’m really annoyed now, as I’ve got to read a book for a Blog Tour tomorrow, and I really want to read this, which I bought a couple of months ago! I actually bought it as Kirstin was doing lots of organising for bloggers for BloodyScotland, and when I saw her name on it, and what the book was about, I had to have it. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a crime fiction fan – although not necessarily Scottish, in fact from anywhere – sorry about that! Delighted to have discovered a new blog. (And keep hold of that Rankin book!)

    • 1streading Says:

      Don’t apologise for being a crime fiction fan – I regularly read and enjoy crime fiction, and have never felt the need to apologise since I visited Hugh MacDiarmid’s cottage at Brownsbank to find the bookshelves crammed with green Penguins! Budding writers look to successful writers, and Rankin has obviously been successful. It’s very difficult to make a living writing ‘literary’ fiction.

  5. Cathy746books Says:

    This sounds excellent. I haven’t read much Scottish fiction for quite a while but I do remember discovering James Kelman in the earlyish 90s and being blown away by his writing.

    • 1streading Says:

      Kelman is probably Scotland’s only world class writer (twice short-listed for the Man Booker international – though no more now it’s all translated literature). Kelman also empowered a lot of other writers, not only in Scotland.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice review.

    I’ve seen it argued that Tartan Noir isn’t really a thing at all, just a marketing term lumped on a few writers with relatively little in common. It’s a view I have some sympathy with, does Rankin have that much in common with Brookmyre for example?

    Interestingly, a vastly disproportionate amount of high quality SF of the last few years has come out of Scotland. Scottish writers seemed to adapt more to the fact that faster than light travel is impossible than US writers, who I think even now really struggle with that fact to the detriment of the genre (not that SF has to be about interstellar travel or anything, but I think the US writers have been demoralised by the loss of the possibility of space as frontier-analogue).

    Girlfriend experience. Jesus but that’s depressing. It sounds an interesting book. Do you think the blog elements will make it age poorly?

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, Tartan Noir is a marketing technique, but equally it does seem that Rankin’s success has made crime fiction fashionable (i.e. lucrative) and probably easier to get published. Does this mean that writers adopt that genre when otherwise they might not have? Impossible to say, but Rankin’s first novel was not a crime one.
      Interesting comments on SF – apart from Iain M Banks, the only other Scottish SF writer I’m aware of is Ken Macleod.
      It’s difficult to say whether the blog elements will date the novel – the fact that they are used to enhance it rather than make it seem ‘now’ will hopefully prevent this. More likely ever changing sexual attitudes will affect it first!

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