Archive for the ‘Jenni Fagan’ Category


June 22, 2022

Jenni Fagan’s Hex is the second in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series in which contemporary Scottish writers recreate a moment in Scottish history. The first was Denise Mina’s Rizzio which focused on the night when Mary, Queen of Scots’, secretary was murdered by Scots nobles. Fagan turns her attention to Geillis Duncan, perhaps hoping to offer a different fictional version to that seen in Outlander, though, like Rizzio, Geillis is an important historical figure. Geillis was only a teenager (she is fifteen in the novella) when she was accused of witchcraft by her master, David Seaton, an accusation at least partly based on her knowledge of healing. She was tortured at length and eventually implicated other women in what became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, before being finally executed on the 4th of December 1591.

An important part of the writer’s task, as with any historical novelist, is to make the narrative as much about the present as the past. Mina did this largely through the language used to present the characters’ dialogue and thoughts – a casual glance at a random page reveals: “fobbed off”; “fancy that”; “doesn’t feel right”; “snobby, surly little shit”. There are occasional missteps, for example when she makes a point of describing the nobles rather redundantly as “white men,” but the general effect is to make the characters accessible to a modern reader. Fagan has taken a different approach by introducing a contemporary voice into the narrative, that of Iris, who reaches Geillis from 2021 through the ‘Null’ as a spirit:

“Travelled time all my life.

“Have had spirits come to me, go through me, had them drag me out of my body and throw me across rooms or ceilings all night long.”

It’s an interesting choice as the familiarity (and she describes herself as Geillis’ familiar at points) of Irene as a contemporary character contrasts with the disbelief the reader needs to suspend to accept her supernatural presence. It also contradicts the commonly expressed argument that witches are innocent because witchcraft does not exist – this, I think, is deliberate as in Fagan’s eyes the more important point is that Geillis has done no harm. As narrative device, however, it works well, introducing us to Geillis’ existence as a prisoner in Edinburgh:

“Your cell is several floors below the city… It is so far below the seasons they might well not exist. There is only one kind of weather in here: freezing cold and cloaked in darkness.”

Iris allows a dialogue to take place with the isolated Geillis, granting a character who has been historically voiceless a voice (part of Geillis’ story is that she recanted as she was led to the gallows but was ignored). Iris claims they are “related by blood – though it wasn’t by marriage, I know that much” providing her with comradeship and comfort to balance her bleak story; it not only suggests that we, in the present, care, but that Geillis can know this. The excruciating descriptions of her torture become a testament:

“They wrapped a rope around my head, wrapped it tighter and tighter to crush my skull… I felt my own bones crunch. Blood leaked out of my ears. They held my legs open wide. Rammed things inside me.”

The cruelty is extraordinary – at one point there are ten men around her – but no worse than we hear of today. She sees the hatred of men:

“There is no man on this earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs! We are portals. Humans emerge from our bodies into a world without explanation. Some men hold a brutal kind of grudge for that.”

She also understands the more calculated hatred of Seaton – “a man made almost entirely of hate” – who uses her to accuse others of a higher station:

“He could not go after her directly, being of nobility as she is a of money… He could not have his motive – to try to get his hands on her inheritance – as something that linked him to her death.”

Fagan’s prose could not be more suited to her subject – at times stripped back, at others almost incantatory. These short books remind me of Canongate’s Myths series in that by giving writers a particular brief it allows them a certain freedom. Hex feels like an offshoot of Luckenbooth, giving Fagan has the opportunity of exploring an even darker side to Edinburgh in this accomplished if harrowing tale.

The Sunlight Pilgrims

May 17, 2016

sunlight pilgrims

The sections in Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, are indicated by date and temperature, the dates revealing that the novel is set in our near future, the temperature suggesting that it belongs in the ever-growing sub-genre of climate catastrophe. While flood has generally been the doomsday scenario of choice in recent fiction, Fagan has opted for a new ice age instead: as the novel progresses, so the temperature drops, plunging Clachan Fells, the Scottish caravan park where it is set, into a winter without end.

Just as the novel begins with three suns in the sky – a naturally occurring illusion called parhelia, but one which immediately creates the sense of the world becoming another, more alien planet – so too are there three characters: Constance, her twelve-year-old daughter Stella, and Dylan, a newcomer to the park. Except that Stella was until recently Constance’s son and the community is struggling to accept her new identity. It doesn’t help that her ex-best friend, Lewis, shared a kiss with her, before becoming complicit in a beating she received from the local boys:

“He did kiss her, though, and the only two people who know about it are her and him. He won’t kiss her again in case any of his friends find out and think he’s weird – that’s why he won’t do it again. Or because he already knows he’d like it.”

Her estranged father also finds it difficult to accept:

“Stella always puts her father’s useless gifts into the charity shop at Clachan Fells. Somewhere in the village there is a boy walking around dressed as her father’s son.”

Dylan has arrived from London having lost his mother, grandmother, and the cinema where he was brought up. His unlikely destination is a result of his grandmother’s Scottish origins, and a parting gift from his mother:

“A pile of unpaid bills are stacked neatly in Vivienne’s vintage sewing box and when he got back from the crematorium he found an envelope containing the deeds for a caravan 578.3 miles away, with a pink post-it note and her scrawl: Bought for cash – no record in any of our accounts. Mum x.”

He quickly falls for Constance: it is typical of Fagan’s skill in marrying the everyday with deep emotion that this happens when he sees her vacuuming:

“At the end of the path a woman hoovers up the road…Her pyjama top rides up and exposes each knot of her vertebra like a fine rope.”

Though Stella is, of course, the star of the show (Fagan’s debut The Panopticon demonstrated her talent for describing the development of identity when growing up), The Sunlight Pilgrims, as the plural in the title suggests, is about the relationships which exist between the three main characters, and how this helps them to define who they are.

For a novel which headlines not one but two topical issues (climate and transsexuality), it is striking how quietly they are absorbed into the narrative, never seeming shouty or preachy. Fagan is aided by the narrative trick that is third person – Stella is simply ‘she’ throughout, overriding the questioning of her gender which takes place among her peers and unaccepting adults. Stella also fronts a line of confused adolescents dating back to at least The Catcher in the Rye – the context of the bullying and unrequited love may be different, but those aspects of coming of age are not. The worsening climate gives Fagan the confined setting, cutting off easy escape from these problems. In both cases, Fagan’s exploration of these themes is characterised by a profound sense of humanity – even the threat of an ice age is balanced by the desire to see an ice berg which is floating down the coast, a very human reaction.

The novel also has a compelling ambiguity. Even the story of the sunlight pilgrims leaves the reader uncertain whether to hope or despair:

“All they had to eat was gannets and one year they all went mad, threw themselves off the cliffs, about seventy of them… They all died apart from one. The found him on the mountaintop naked, sitting in lotus, drinking light… He said you just drink it. He said it keeps humans right.”

Even the title of the last section, The End Has Almost Come, is open to interpretation, as are the novel’s final lines. Such is Fagan’s affirmation of the essential humanity of her characters, however, that it is difficult to believe there isn’t hope.

The Panopticon

November 6, 2013


Having neglected Scottish literature for a number of months, despite my best intentions at the start of the year, I was reminded of my earlier aims by Stuart Kelly’s list of the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years – now the subject of a public vote. The books within the list seem admirably spread out over the previous five decades – around the same number from the last ten years, for example, as from the 1980s. However, it did strike me that this included recent novels from established writers such as James Kelman and A. L. Kennedy whereas in the 1980s we find early (or first) novels from Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks and Janice Galloway. Of the newer novels, there was one which I had heard widely praised – Jenni Fagan’s debut The Panopticon, published in 2011 – and if I didn’t actually have a copy already! I prevaricated no longer and read it.

Luckily, The Panopticon proved to be as assured as its press suggested. It tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, Anais Hendricks, who has spent her life in the care system. Her only successful adoption ended with the murder of her foster mother. We find her joining yet another institution, the Panopticon, with the suspicion hanging over her that she has attacked a policewoman and put her in a coma. The novel charts her time at the new home, the friendships she creates, and the lives of the other children there.

Fagan tells the story in Anais’ voice – a necessity, really, if the narrative is not to be suffused with a value system that she is not part of. This is not an easy trick as Anais’ intelligence means we have elements of dialect (“tae”) and slang (“paedo”) alongside lines such as:

“The smell of wet grass filters in the window – bark swollen by rain, mulch, autumn, a faint wisp of woodfire.”

Initially I found this a little jarring, but such is the strength of Anais’ character I soon accepted her voice.

Anais is wonderful creation: strong but vulnerable doesn’t do her justice sounding as it sounds like the cliché of a lazy blurb writer, yet Fagan demonstrates both aspects of her character with an unflinching honesty. Just as Anais makes no attempt to encourage others to like her, the author makes no compromises in her portrayal. Her strength is not only physical – though we see at one point a rage descend on her in which she loses all control – but mental (I want to say spiritual, though the religious connotations of that word would mislead), a determination to be unbeaten. Fagan demonstrates her vulnerability in the very way she enables herself to go on, something she calls the birthday game, where she imagines alternative lives for herself:

“Imagine Paris. Imagine being born a beautiful, lucky wee girl with a beautiful mum, who I’d met, who I lived with; one who made pancakes, and drank gin, and listened tae jazz.”

She also imagines she is being watched by the Experiment – a nod, no doubt, to the fact that all these methods of dealing with children in care are little more than experiments and that Anais’ paranoid fantasy is actually quite close to the truth.

At the novel’s conclusion, I was reminded of Douglas Dunn’s poem A Removal from Terry Street where he sees that the movers are pushing a lawn mower and wishes them grass. I couldn’t help but wish Anais Paris.