To be treated to readings by two writers included in Granta’s 2013 Best Young Novelists list was double blessing indeed on a grey October morning in Dundee. In a venue steamy with wet raincoats, Jenni Fagan and Sarah Hall read from their latest works, each with her own distinctive style.
Fagan’s prizewinning début novel, The Panopticon, (William Heinemann, 2012) is set in the terrifying world of a secure children’s unit somewhere in Scotland. This is an institution where children who have somehow ‘failed’ to adapt to society’s norms can be observed twenty-four hours a day. Like the main character, Anais Hendricks, they have probably been brought in in handcuffs. Hendricks has blood on her school uniform and is suspected of assaulting afemale police officer, who is now in a coma. Disempowered as Hendricks is by the system meant to protect her, she remains upbeat and hopeful and seems to believe often unrealistically so that there is another life into which she can be metaphorically reborn.
Fagan’s chosen reading found Anais rehearsing the various possible circumstances and outcomes of her future ‘rebirth’. Whilst the raw language and voice are both firmly fixed in the character of this bright but troubled and, as yet, uneducated youngster, Fagan’s delivery was surprising in its reflective quality and lyrical style. This mirrored unexpected aspects of the novel itself, a work which deals, essentially, with a parallel world so dangerous and unpredictable that it would crush most of us. It came as no surprise to learn that Fagan’s early literary ambition was to be a poet.
Sarah Hall read “The Agency” a short story from her collection The Beautiful Indifference (Faber and Faber, 2011). Quite different in both literary style and delivery, Hall is supremely confident in her creation of setting and “texture” necessary to bring a short story to maturity. The detailed description of the headquarters of a mysterious “agency”, whose clients are, it seems, vaguely dissatisfied females looking for they don’t yet know what, engages the listener fully with the strange, almost science-fiction atmosphere of Hall’s story. The characterisation of The Drone, the super-polite agent, together with dialogue which fall with perfection on the ear, had a directness and upbeat quality reflected in Hall’s own reading style.
In answer to questions from the floor, Hall compared the short story form with the novel “They are different beasts”, she said. Something definite must occur in a short story, whose development must be brief. She also spoke eloquently of the capacity of language to affect the state of mind of both reader and writer. “What influences creation is”, she remarked, “texture, a glow – the vibrancy of the moment.
Towards the end of the session, the entrance of the two writers into the literary world was contrasted. Hall described her slow-burn of her rise to prominence via her short stories and acclaimed novels, including Haweswater and Electric Michaelangelo. Fagan, on the other hand, admitted to have been taken somewhat unawares by the worldwide success of her first novel and spoke of the need to keep the media-driven pressures of success “somewhere out there”.
Looking to the future, Hall is working on a new novel set in post-independence Scotland (she hopes it will be released in September 2014!), whilst Fagan plans to return to short stories and a second novel, while at the same time also working on the screenplay of The Panopticon. In both cases, the world of literature and film can look forward with anticipation to more great things from these two talented writers.
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