Published by Oneworld in March, 2023
This is a page of reviews and information about my debut novel, Quinn. If you’d like to book me for a reading and discussion, please either use my ‘contact’ tab or email Kate Appleton, publicity director at Oneworld on email@example.com.
quinn is available here:
- Bookshop.org (support independent booksellers)
- Book Depository
- Amazon.co.uk (last resort!)
interview with the Scottish Book Trust
- How did you get into writing?
I started writing in my teens because, like many teenagers, I went through a period of feeling miserable and lost. Writing gave me an outlet for my emotions; I could hide in my room and – in utter, delicious privacy – respond to the world however the hell I wanted. Meanwhile, I began English A-level, fell in love with R.S. Thomas and D.H. Lawrence and that was that.
Over the years, writing has evolved from lifesaver to discipline to creative liberation and joy, and often all four at once. It has undoubtedly been a tool for healing, even though I went through a weird, snobby phase of believing that writing literature was about cleverness and how many books you’d read, not something ‘soft subject’ like healing. But I was wrong, and thank goodness for that. The longer I write, the more I realise that essentially the art and practice of writing is for my own learning: I’m trying to work something out; I’m trying to heal the skewed ways in which I see the world, to help myself bring things together rather than set them further apart. And I’m inviting readers to do the same: unique enquiry alongside unique enquiry.
- What can readers expect from Quinn?
Quinn is an exploration of male violence, incarceration and radical forgiveness. I’ve spent a decade working with long-term prisoners in Scotland, trying to understand and come to terms with notions of justice and responsibility: does guilt begin and end with the perpetrator of a violent act or are we all in some way culpable? It’s been a difficult book to write, not least because it focuses on male violence towards women – such a pressing issue of our times – and tries to treat Quinn as a whole person, rather than neatly labelling him. Sitting with that broader perspective has been profoundly unsettling, but necessary: how else can we arrive at a place where restorative justice might be possible? Is it even desirable to forgive the unforgivable, and if so, what might that look like?
Quinn doesn’t have any answers and nor do I, but he wants to talk about it and so do I.
- You are originally a poet. How did the motivation to write a novel come about?
Ha ha, now I’m remembering that awful, desperately dire novel I wrote in my twenties that somehow got terminally erased from my shonky 1990’s laptop, and thank goodness for that! I also scribbled a few short stories in my teens and twenties, mostly because I was in love with Raymond Carver’s work and wanted to write like him. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to write fiction back then and the right material hadn’t come knocking.
If I look at my poetry, I see that it’s all about love, and if I look at Quinn and the new novel I’m working on, I see that it’s all about evil. I seem to be using different genres to explore opposite ends of the same spectrum. It wasn’t intentional, at least not consciously.
The one major difference between writing poetry and writing fiction for me is the mode of inspiration: poetry comes through feelings and fiction comes through an internal image, usually the central scene of the book that carries all the key themes that I’m to explore. With Quinn, I also had the first line of the book going around my head for ages before I began to write:
‘Things have been done that hurt the mouth to speak of.’
Review by Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman
The hallucinatory tale of a man who may or may not have committed a terrible crime, Quinn is an exceptionally accomplished debut novel, writes Stuart Kelly.
The Scotsman, 9 March 2023
Quinn is a very peculiar, quite remarkable novel. It has one of the rarest qualities in contemporary writing, in that it is a work of genuine depth; with a feeling that it has been hard-won and not just typed out. There is something glorious about reading a book where you have a kind of caesura, and feel the need to re-read the previous pages in case you missed something crucial. “Crucial” seems an apposite word for Quinn, in many different ways.
The eponymous Quinn starts the novel speaking from prison. He has been convicted of a crime, but he is not convinced he committed the crime, or was justly incarcerated for it. It involves the disappearance of Andrea, whom he says he “had to search for… not least because I was the only person who knew where to look”. They had “loved each other all our lives – since we were five or six years old. No, we had imitated love, pretended love, failed and misunderstood love”. The skelfs around reliability start to wince early: “It is true that when I speak, I begin to remember. Or when I remember, I begin to speak. It is a difficult process and a long story”.
Quinn’s narrating of his prison time is somewhat compromised. Were there really three black birds that attacked him, or a man with a camera who became a statue, almost an idol? And what does the reader make of the “Stone Man” and its connection to his fantasy that he and Andrea were “like a god and goddess depicted on an alabaster tomb”? (Incidentally, the use of the word “alabaster” is pitch-perfect in that a lesser writer would have said “marble”).
The twist, the nub, of the book is a surprising offer. The mother of Andrea, after years of resentment, bitterness and fury at Quinn, suggests to him a position as her carer on his release. It becomes not just about the possibility of forgiveness, but the potential for redemption: and yet, the reader is still on shifting sands as to what actually happened. They have been forewarned. “It was obvious”, Quinn says, “that so much of this suffering could have been avoided if they had made an effort to unpick the endless stream of hysterical stories that had been woven around her disappearance”.
Forgiveness is a topic I have thought about a lot, and written about a little. My only real conclusion is that it is not easy. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, in one of his typically quizzical paradoxes, wrote that “the only thing that is forgivable is the unforgivable”, and this seems to be the conundrum at the heart of this novel. Is Quinn’s time with Andrea’s mother intended as rehabilitation or a different kind of penance? Her mother is looking for “an act of freedom for myself”, a desire “to make peace with what I can’t change”, which is exactly how Bishop Butler described forgiveness as a means to eradicate resentment. The book dances around these questions with nuance and elegance.
Strang is a poet, and the phrase “a poet’s novel” always seems to carry a patina of suspicion. It need not mean more adjectives than plot. This is a poetic book, not least in its use of repetition. Several phrases toll ominously throughout, from the plangent (“Things have been done that hurt the mouth to speak of”, “Let it be known that I have suffered”) to an eerie echo of “dark blue, almost black” that is applied to many different things. There is also a very poetic sense in which a statement and its opposite are held in suspension. Quinn says, for example, “I am a complicated man. I am an uncomplicated man”. This is incantatory, which seems appropriate for a book rooted in religious ideas. It is also hallucinatory. Several times Quinn states “Five years passed, or the sun and moon had tricked me”, which very effectively unsettles the reader looking for a realist narrative with a neat closure. The time, as a famous Danish prince once said, is out of joint.
There is a note which strikes false in the book. Quinn has published a few stories in small literary magazines and local newspapers, and Andrea’s mother’s rather dislikeable neighbour seems to like tormenting him over his thwarted literary ambitions. The story he recounts has symbolic value within the book (it involves swans, another frequent image), but it could just as well have been a family story or an old legend. Quinn as writer manqué does not really contribute to the overall moral arch of the book. Even Quinn as a failed writer does not make the realities of grief, guilt and regret any less palpable.
Strang’s novel reminded me a great deal of Sebastian Barry’s new book, Old God’s Time, which is similarly dealing with old crimes and smudges the borders between memory, false memory, dream and fantasy. Strang is an exceptionally accomplished writer, and I very much hope this is just the first book by her that I read. It also eludes being generic. I would reckon that any 12 readers would arrive at 12 different conclusions about the “really-ness” of it.
A former Booker Prize judge, a prolific interviewer at book festival events and the author of works on a wide range of subjects, from the legacy of Sir Walter Scott to the lost works of some of history’s greatest writers, there can be few people stravaiging around our planet at the current time who carry with them such a breadth and depth of literary knowledge as Scotland on Sunday critic Stuart Kelly. So when he writes in his review of Em Strang’s new book Quinn that “Strang is an exceptionally accomplished writer, and I very much hope this is just the first book by her that I read” … well… let’s just say you might want to pay a visit to your local independent bookseller this weekend while there are still a few copies left in stock.Roger Cox, Arts Editor, Scotsman
Thank you to the publishers for this early review copy. This book had not been on my radar before it’s arrival but I feel having read it that I really must get it on everyone’s radar. The writing is exquisite the story will really touch your heart. I whole heartedly recommend this book to everyone. Take Quinn into your heart. Give it a pre order – you will not regret it.Fiona Sharp, Foyles
This novel had us gripped from start to finish!Closer Magazine
A layer of post-covid fog lifted unexpectedly and my ability to read returned. I celebrated by devouring Quinn by Em Strang in two sittings. What little I’d read in advance suggested that it was a novel about murder and forgiveness, told in sometimes hypnotically beautiful language. It is much more than that. And possibly not even that. Or not exactly that. It has the rare quality of being precise and gripping while at the same time leaving you radically uncertain as to what has actually happened. It’s short, too. Can there be a more persuasive combination?Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Quinn is a haunting fable about redemption, rendered in otherworldly, poetic prose.Financial Times
That Em Strang is a poet comes as no surprise. She packs the text with natural imagery and quirky linguistic choices… Compelling and original.Literary Review
I read your book this weekend. Thank you for writing it. It is extraordinary and utterly powerful, without being sensationalist, which I think another teller could have made it.
I don’t know where I heard or read recently about the ‘gait’ of writing, but I like this idea better than rhythm, and there is such a changing gait to Quinn (no doubt your well-tuned poetic ear) sometimes smooth and controlled and other times hobbling and out of joint as we follow his various mental states.
I heard an interview with Sarah Perry a while back and she talked about ‘good books’, meaning books that put good into the world. I can’t remember the detail of what she said, but the gist of it was that she felt a responsibility to plant goodness in her writing. Sounds obvious, but lots of books do not do this, and your brave work, addressing such a taboo subject that’s often put out there only as crime writing, will, I believe, do much good, quietly and steadily. May its reach be wide and far.Eimear Bush, Scottish Book Trust New Writer
Arresting… at its best [Quinn] has a Max Porter-like intensity.Daily Mail
A subtle and sophisticated exploration of forgiveness and motive… short but intense… We are not following clues so much as Quinn’s memories, dreams and stories. These might or might not – I’m not going to tell you – reveal what really happened to Andrea, and whether or not Quinn ends up being truly forgiven. But in a way which is imaginative, compelling and refreshingly cliche-free, they explain everything you need to know about him.David Robinson, Books from Scotland
Quinn is a fascinating fever dream of a book. Guilt, redemption, memory and fantasy are shattered and rebuilt into a strange kaleidoscope, a compelling personal narrative from a deeply broken man. What a novelistic debut from Em Strang.A.L. Kennedy, author of We Are Attempting To Survive Our Time
I read it at a sitting, compelled by this strange and beautiful work. It was haunting in the best sense; a poet’s vision of a mind disorganised by fear, distress and death. Yet the narrative never lost sight of the human frailty in Quinn, or of his lost sense of love. An astonishing feat of imagination.Gwen Adshead, author of The Devil You Know
Em Strang’s is a true voice, and Quinn is that rarity, an original work of fiction, which excavates trauma and memory and refuses the frameworks placed on it. This book is its own landscape. Strange and powerful.Paul Kingsnorth, author of The Wake, winner of the Gordon Burn Prize
Such graceful prose with not a wasted breath; such grounded sharing from the magma of experience.Alastair McInstosh, author of Soil And Soul