Hostages by Oisín Fagan review: Taking no prisoners
A near-future dystopia, an engaging short story debut mostly set in Meath
Oisín Fagan, author of Hostages
“Would you like to evolve?” The question at the end of Oisín Fagan’s opening story “Being Born” is loaded with a menace that runs throughout his debut collection. Comprised of only five stories, Hostages is packed with ideas and ideology seeking to outline the current state of Irish society and where it might be headed.
Near-future dystopias, most of them set in Meath, offer grotesque echoes of today’s world. A hundred years from now, America is building a wall, jettisoning all but its most necessary trade partners. Students make bombs to blow up their schools. Past horrors are revisited. The so-called “death planes” used by the junta dictatorship to murder dissenters in the Argentine Dirty War wreak chaos in the Irish countryside.
In Fagan’s surreal worlds the logic of the absurd reigns. Love and violence, birth and death, evolution and extinction – each of the stories is, in its own way, a call to arms by the author to take note of what passes over us as news each day.
There is a strong social conscience to this collection, echoed in the acknowledgements where one of the stories is dedicated to the homeless children of Ireland. A spoken word quality to the writing helps to get the author’s message across.
It is used with brio in “Costellos”, a sweeping and ambitious saga of ancestry compressed into short story form. The assured voice of the narrator, “the eighth ever Costello to be born above the poverty threshold” in 1991, starts with his forbear Alphonse who leaves Calais for Wexford in 1574. Other Costellos through the ages are vividly depicted in mere sentences: Patricia who dies of rinderpox in New York, and IRB collaborator Olly who escapes off a prison ship to Australia by eating a bar of soap: “They did not flourish but they survived.” It is a line that applies to many of the collection’s characters.
Take the narrator of “No Diamonds”, who describes a futuristic Boyne valley where fake diamonds are planted by authorities to keep the masses busy. Revolutions and counter-revolutions are to the fore but the worst violence occurs in the domestic space. After requesting, Beckett like, that his sons chain him to a tree to stop him drinking, the father of the family is flensed by acid rain: “Dad’s skeleton stripped bare, thin amongst the rusty chains, his bones gleaming white from the acid.” It is one of many absurd details: a father only 13-years-older than his son, a well-fed mother dying of malnutrition, the narrator losing his virginity in highly romantic fashion: “‘What STIs have you?’ she said. ‘Just the usual ones,’ I said. ‘Grand so,’ she said.”
This dry, dark humour underpins the five stories and their gruesome worlds. Dead bodies, dead animals and post-apocalyptic landscapes are offset with jokes about everything from Alien to Dutch Gold beer to a neutral accent revealing a character to be “very clearly a product of cosmopolitan Maynooth”.
Feisty female heroines emerge in most of the stories, such as Sharon in the somewhat disjointed “Being Born”. A dizzying cast of male schoolboys incite their peers to partake in the Scoil Dara rising, whose various threads and switches in voice test the reader’s patience but come together with a surprising twist at the end.
Another plucky female character is Argentinian Marianela in “The Sky over Our Houses”, a story that gives a moving look at a family about to lose their beloved mother to cancer. While he tries to organise his wife’s hospital appointments, ex-sergeant Declan Burke must also deal with the dead bodies dropping from the sky on to their farm. The clever contrast of macabre and everyday detail make his predicament clear.
The closing story, “The Price of Flowers”, goes further into dystopia with an interesting but less impactful portrayal of life and death. More dead bodies float by Local Maeve as she tries to escape the feelers and their oxygenators. Trapped in torturous negotiations that are made to feel like lifetimes, Maeve is “chased by everywhere”.
Threading the macabre through familiar landscapes and routines is not new but Fagan’s work holds its own against his contemporaries. Recent debut collections such as the American writer Diane Cook’s Man v Nature and Northern Irish Jan Carson’s Children’s Children come to mind. From Meath, Fagan has previously published in The Stinging Fly, New Planet Cabaret and the anthology Young Irelanders. His novella The Hierophants won the Penny Dreadful Novella competition earlier this year.
As with Carson and Cook, Fagan is interested in disenfranchised societies, young people in particular: “You throw yourself down the stairs in terraced houses ’cause your house didn’t have a stairs and that was the craic, swift-like, break your fucking ribs, lad. You dye the tip of your fringe blonde and pierce your eyebrows and then what? That’s your whole life.”
And how do you evolve from that?