The Complete Novellas by Agnes Owens

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The Complete Novellas by Agnes Owens

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Wonderfully perceptive stories set in the Scottish working class from the nineteen forties on. With nairy an I-pod or mobile phone in sight, don't be misled by the cover: this isn't contemporary. Instead enjoy a vintage collection about universal issues.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 497 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846971372

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Who is Agnes Owens? A Scottish author who portrays working class life from the nineteen forties and fifties. Now an octogenarian, apparently Agnes Owens started writing at the age of 58. Here are five previously published stories collected into one new edition, a companion volume to her short stories, published in 2008. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

The stories are just wonderful. In Like Birds in the Wilderness an insouciant male protagonist steers a comically boozy course through the heather while on a camping holiday with his classy girl-friend, a sort of Alfie meets The Thirty Nine Steps hero. Completely different is the poignant For the love of Willie in which a long term inmate of a mental hospital tells her story. Peggy is an unmarried and pregnant sixteen year old in wartime. The baby is put up for adoption by her outraged mother; and Peggy spends the rest of her life in an institution. Just as I'd built up a real blether of outrage about human rights in the olden days, I stumbled on the thought-provoking twist in the tail.

Completely different again, I also loved Jen's Party, a savage, black-humoured tale of two sisters and a daughter not living happily ever after. Each of the five stories is surprisingly distinctive in characters, setting, treatment and theme, but there are common threads. Alcohol, used as a coping mechanism, can quickly turn sour. Feckless, selfish, uncaring men behave badly. Owen's women are resourceful and pragmatic, but too often reliant on their sexual currency to solve their problems.

Owens has been called, the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors. Why isn't she more famous? Well I have a couple of theories about missed boats. When the literary establishment embraced the gritty industrial North in the sixties, they only managed to peer halfway up the country towards Manchester and Leeds, as if the upper half of the UK island just didn't exist. Then again, public interest in working class literature of similar quality (and I'm thinking here of Bill Naughton and Barry Hines) perhaps came too early for a writer first published in the late nineteen-eighties. I suspect also that her writing isn't female-centred enough to please feminists, for her narrators are just as likely to be male. She seems equally at home and successful with either sex leading these five stories.

Jacqueline Walker's Pilgrim State might appeal if you enjoy reading about hardship in the post-war era. I'd also pick out Benjamin Obler's off-the wall Javascotia about modern Glaswegian life as my favourite from many Bookbag reviews of books with Scottish settings. Obler shares Agnes Owens' ability to write in dialect without raising any hackles.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publisher for sending this book.

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Buy The Complete Novellas by Agnes Owens at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Complete Novellas by Agnes Owens at


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