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Ootlin: A Memoir by Jenni Fagan review: Harrowing truths about the care system

This tale of survival gives voice to the silenced

Ootlin by Jenni Fagan

Ootlin: A Memoir, by the remarkable Jenni Fagan, is an unforgettable testament to survival – rendering the first 16 years of her life as a child shunted across various foster homes, adoptive placements and hostels in Scotland. Fagan wrote the initial material 20 years ago, as an adult contending with complex PTSD and suicidal thoughts, meaning to leave the story of her life behind. Then she put this manuscript away into a locked case for two decades.  

During this time, she became a critically acclaimed author and poet. However, in 2020, suffering with Covid and fearing she might die, Fagan had the epiphany that she needed to share her story – to reclaim her narrative in the face of bureaucratic and societal erasure. 

In this memoir, Fagan unpacks what it means to live unloved and in constant threat of abuse. Her writing records the terror, violence and degradation she experienced from adults inside and outside the care system, who ritually harmed the children they should have protected, and spat on their inner shine. She explores the horrific impact of the stories she was taught about herself from birth, by the many, many people in positions of power who treated her like a monster, unworthy of care. She emphasises the importance of changing the story, and the vital need to listen to those who are silenced and oppressed. 

Fagan also highlights the kindnesses that helped her to endure, from the allies she made as a young person to the books she read; they became friends that allowed her to craft her own words and worlds. Her memoir holds its griefs openly – she draws tenderness here like blood from stone. To emerge as Fagan has done is something of a miracle. Her readers can only thank her for giving this life over, for granting us her incredible roster of books, for tearing herself out of that existence – into ink and paper.

Annie Hayter is a writer and poet

Ootlin: A Memoir by Jenni Fagan is out on 24 August (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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