The Panopticon (2012) by Jenni Fagan
A teenage offender is sent to a secure unit after she’s found covered in blood and a police officer is in a coma. She breaks out, she goes on adventures, she describes her outfits in detail. I mistakenly thought this was sci-fi, but there was some fun to be had nonetheless.
When I was 20 I would have been thrilled to read this book: drugs, Gaelic slang, nights out, aimless violence, a central female character who doesn’t give a shit. These days it makes me feel all sorts of ancient and jaded.
The Sunlight Pilgrims (2016) by Jenni Fagan
Set against a deliciously chilly Scottish backdrop during a freak winter. A grief-stricken projectionist heads to a caravan in Clachan Fells in the north of Scotland with his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes. It starts at -6 degrees and goes downhill from there.
I enjoyed this much more than The Panopticon, and can see Fagan will be a really great writer in a few years. I’m willing to wait, as she weaves a great tale.
There are some amazing visualisations of the effects of the cold and isolation. I enjoyed the characters, although many of them were in the mold of ‘colourful outsider with accessories’ rather than ‘real person with foibles’. She does go to some trouble to show off her obscure knowledge of a word or a process, completely outside of the story arc, which did irritate me (see Orwell below, the chap who rightly said “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”). This author does knows how to finish on a memorable note – give The Sunlight Pilgrims a go.
A fucking timeless classic.
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell
Now you’re talking. A compilation of Orwell’s various exploits as a plongeur (dishwasher) in the kitchens of Paris and a tramp in London. He only lived until he was 46, and no wonder what with the alternately damp and blazing/damp and chilly conditions. It’s a first-person journalistic account with the person taken out – just pure, vivid observation.
I ripped through the Paris section, snorting loudly at his descriptions of the barbaric 7th-circle-of-hell-like conditions, and thought it slowed down somewhat in the London parts. Perhaps because Orwell felt London to be “so much cleaner and quieter and drearier than Paris….it was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop.” A good book that makes you want to have a good bath at the end.
High-Rise (1975) by JG Ballard
A doctor moves into a new luxury high-rise looking for isolation after his divorce. It starts with the normal petty arguments of close neighbours, and swiftly descends into total madness. The lower floors rebel against the upper, the middle floors take sides, dogs are murdered and eaten, factions are formed and broken, light and water is cut off for good, lifts and stairwells become death traps, and the architect enjoys it all from his penthouse suite as he strolls about with his Alsatian.
Give me a dystopian British novel any day of the week. I loved how the characters exist in a completely closed world. Everyone deliberately cuts themself off, and despite the violence and anarchy of the building they see the high rise only as a safe haven from the perils of a bland London sparkling in the distance.
Ballard reads like a slightly more modern version of John Wyndham, whom I love. Like a lot of male sci-fi authors, the characters are just mouthpieces for his abstract thoughts, and the female characters pretty much 1-dimensional. So you have to put aside all your Margaret Atwood-ish tendencies to enjoy the strangeness. And ooo I just read there’s a movie version coming, which looks great.