Category Archives: Literary Fiction

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

“As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick.”

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

 

At the opening of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, fifteen year old Anais Hendricks, the anti-hero of the piece, is sitting hand cuffed in the back of a police car being transferred to The Panopticon a children’s unit with a watchtower that forces its residents to live under constant observation. She has blood on her school uniform, and a police woman is lying in a coma that she is unlikely to come out of.

The opening of the novel, coupled with the fact that Anais is feisty, intelligent and stylish, seemingly possessed of a six sense which allows her to see to the very core of people, could make this sound like a middle of the road, young adult dystopian novel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because beneath her tough exterior, Anais is incredibly vulnerable, a teenage girl for whom the label at risk might have been invented- in the grip of delusions fuelled by narcotic psychosis or untreated borderline personality disorder, she has been exploited or failed by most of the adults she has encountered in her short life. This is not a novel which uses a dystopia as a smoke screen for real world issues, this is a novel about real world issues which hammers home the appalling ways that the most vulnerable members of society are so often failed and demonized.

Jenni Fagan’s writing is like slam poetry, the perfect words chosen with flair that punches you in the guts. Her characterisation is exemplary and nothing I can say will do it justice, so what I will say is that The Panopticon is a novel which probably needs a thousand trigger warnings, but I would recommend that everyone reads it.

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas


Never let it be said that Scarlett Thomas’ novels are pedestrian. The Seed Collectors reads like a mash-up between a Jilly Cooper novel, a botanist’s almanac and a New Age Spiritualist Guide.

Following the death of their Aunt Oleander, the younger generation of the Gardener family, whose parents disappeared while seeking a mystical plant during their offspring’s teenage years, each receive a seed pot, purportedly from the same magical plant which offers those who consume it instant enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, albeit with the side effect of a very painful death. Despite the title and this premise, the narrative focus of The Seed Collectors is less on the plants than on the lives of the younger generation of Gardeners who live outwardly normal lives but lean on drugs, sex, alcohol, eating disorders and shopping addictions to medicate their inner dysfunction.

The novel starts strongly and cohesively, building a credible narrative around characters that you simultaneously dislike and pity. However, just as you begin to wonder if and how Thomas will tie the various storylines together, the novel shifts genres from family drama to spiritualist fantasy, taking much of the tension and a good measure of the pleasure of the read with it.

This insistence upon shifting from the believable to the bonkers is increasingly becoming a feature of Thomas’ work (along with her preference for characters to be tied closely to the Academe, ideally holding a PhD, but studying for an MA at the very least). In some instances, such as The End of Mr Y and PopCo it works brilliantly, but on this occasion I wonder if the read might not have been even more enjoyable if Thomas had stepped out of her comfort zone and forced her characters to face their problems instead of escaping into the realm of fantasy? With characters like Beatrix, the internet savvy granny with a penchant for playing the stock market and googling c(l)ocks; Oliver, the lecturer who fantasizes that his nubile undergraduate student is his daughter and Holly, the teenage anorexic who might just be the most stable member of her family, the novel was lively and entertaining, but with huge potential to go further.

I liked it on the whole, and loved the first three-quarters, but the ending with its stock descent into Scarlett Thomas’ token escapism did leave me feeling a little bit like Jack’s mother when he came home with the magic beans.

Firmin: Adventures of A Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

firmin adventures of a metropolitan lowlifeSome writers can never equal their first novel. I could never equal my first sentence. And look at me now. Look how I have begun this, my final work, my opus: ‘I had always imagined that my life story, if and when…’ Good God, ‘if and when’! You see the problem. Hopeless. Scratch it.

Firmin: Adventures of A Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

So begins our eponymous narrator.

Firmin is an erudite lowlife with a taste for literature, popcorn and pornography. He is also a rat, of the literal, grey fur, bewhiskered variety. Born the runt of the litter in the basement of a bookshop, and forced to eat books to survive, he finds that the words have a strange effect upon him. Because for all Firmin looks like a rat to the outside world, he has a sophisticated Fred Astaire style character inside him just dying to get out- the books he’s read have made him intelligent and articulate, a rodent with a poet’s soul.

The concept of a book loving rat living in a bookshop in Boston is, on the surface, a cheery Disney-style image, but Firmin rejects the idea of the Disney mouse (“I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fishbones”) and replaces it with Sam Savage’s rat, a far more poignant character. Because life as a literary rat is incredibly lonely, isolated from your own species and regarded as vermin by most humans, what’s the best that you can hope for?

Firmin is far from fluffy, at times he is repulsive- but I found myself rooting for the little guy all the same. I found myself laughing aghast at his dangerous naivety, and crying at his humanity because for all Sam Savage has shaped his narrator in a rodent’s body, where it counts he is one of the most human characters I’ve read in a long time.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

I was really excited to receive Alexander Maksik’s new novel A Marker to Measure Drift having reviewed and loved his debut novel You Deserve Nothing. I took no time at all in reading it, but have taken for ever to review it as it left me feeling really shaken.

That’s the thing about Maksik’s writing. I don’t know how he does it, but there is something about his words that seems to directly access your emotions and twist them this way and that. Maybe it’s a feature of great writing, but there aren’t many novelists that you can honestly say manage that. The novel follows Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, as she survives living hand to mouth in an Aegean tourist trap, riddled with survivor’s guilt having escaped a tragedy which is hinted at, but not directly referred to until the end of the novel.

It’s impressive how Maksik sustains the reader’s attention in the interim, gripping them with Jacqueline’s bleak struggle for a survival she doesn’t even seem to want. His intimate narrative confidently, and more importantly, credibly creates the character of a young female refuge which really engages the reader with her plight. The trouble is, in a novel rooted in such gritty, real affairs, there can be no happy ending. When I finished the novel I felt horrified and a little bereft- a reaction to the writing, but not an emotionally easy read.

If you enjoy powerful issues based writing like J.M. Shaw’s Ten Weeks in Africa, I would definitely recommend A Marker to Measure Drift. Maksik is a powerful writer, but you need to make sure that you’re in the right place emotionally before engaging with some of the topics in this book.

Ten Weeks in Africa by J.M. Shaw

Ten Weeks in Africa- What would you sacrifice to do the right thing?

Ten Weeks in Africa- What would you sacrifice to do the right thing?

When Ed Caine, an NGO  worker employed by the Global Justice Alliance moves his wife and young child to Africa to improve living conditions in the Makera slum, he genuinely believes he can make a difference, but in ten short weeks his ideals are shattered. Despite the assistance of Beatrice Kamunda and her father Joseph Kamunda, a senior government official known for his principled stance against corruption, he finds himself stonewalled as funds are siphoned off by the government. As Ed and his friends try struggle to save their project, they begin to realise that they a powerful enemy is behind the land grab. As political tensions seethe pushing the country to the brink of civil war, Ed and Beatrice begin to understand that much more than the survival of the project is at stake.

For anyone who remembers the outcry that arose when it was revealed that millions of pounds of Western Aid (including funds from Live Aid) was used by rebel leaders to buy arms, Ten Weeks in Africa by JM Shaw is an interesting read. It is well written with a fast paced and engaging story, but more than this it poses some interesting questions about Western interference in Africa. Through careful characterisation and plotting, Shaw creates a brilliant tension which gives birth to a pointed question: does financial aid from rich countries exacerbate the problems it is intended to solve?

Though I am interested in politics and global justice, I can’t make any claims to be an expert, so I did some research about what the experts actually thought about it and the consensus seems to be that it is a well-researched, accurate representation of the concerns of people working in this area. For more information I recommend this article by Peter Gill for The Guardian and this article by Charles Moore for The Telegraph.