I bought The Girl With All The Gifts last year and since then it has been sitting hopefully on my To Be Read list. Still, having heard great things, it was with great interest that I received a copy of this from Netgalley. From what I hear from other people, this second novel is a bit of a departure from the previous so I think I will just have to read The Girl to get a better idea of what the fuss was all about. The central character in Fellside is Jess Moulson, who wakes up in a hospital bed to be told that she has suffered severe burns in a house fire during which her neighbours’ ten year-old son perished – an event Jess herself has no memory of. To make matters worse, Jess herself is suspected of having set the fire deliberately to claim the life of her abusive boyfriend John Street. After a long-term heroin habit and a life time with little in the way of luck, even Jess has a low opinion of herself, and she has few memories with which to undermine the prosecution’s depiction of events. Heart-broken about the death of young Alex, Jess is minded to plead guilty and, determined to die, she refuses to eat. After the inevitable guilty verdict, Jess finds herself transferred to Fellside, a maximum security prison.
Jess spends her early weeks as an inmate in the infirmary, clinging to her hunger strike and longing for death. The prisoners run a book on how long she will last, Dr Salazar wishes that he could help her, then Nurse Stock tries in tiny ways to make Jess’ suffering worse. It is then that an intervention occurs, with Jess being apparently visited by the ghost of young Alex, encouraging her to choose life instead. Jess’ subsequent miraculous recovery confounds the hospital staff and seriously upsets Harriet Grace, the inmate who has made an empire out of the maximum security ward, running drugs and dealing out punishments to all who defy her. Grace loses a fortune when Jess turns the corner and she is a woman inclined to bear a grudge.
Fellside is rather Orange is the New Black meets The Shining. There are factions, friendships, complex allegiances and a strict hierarchy – Jess never quite fits in. Yet everywhere she goes, she is accompanied by a companion invisible to all others, and Alex knows the names of everyone and how each of them inter-relate. Clinging to the hope that perhaps she is not Alex’s killer after all, Jess tries to discover what happened, why Alex is haunting Fellside. Her face and sense of self destroyed by her past, Jess has no plan for escape or rebirth, she seeks simply a release from her guilt. As the dark tales of Fellside unfold, we begin to understand the story is a great deal more complicated than Jess has realised, and that her redemption may not come in the way she has hoped.
Fellside calls up some fascinating questions – there is the question of the prison system itself, N-fold, led by governor Save-Me Scratchwell who has dreamt up euphemistic lingo to make his regime appear more palatable. Solitary becomes ‘punitive withdrawal’ and Scratchwell is confident to delegate the on-the-ground matters to trusty warder Devlin – Devlin of course is Harriet Grace’s lover and is blackmailing Doctor Salazar. The contrast between the corporate corruption and negligence and the more supernatural danger is a thought-provoking one, prompting interesting questions about the true nature of evil. Prison novels tend to send me into a shudder, reminding me once again why law-breaking will never be for me as I recognise how little I would be suited to incarceration (the word ‘wouldn’t’, ‘five minutes’ and ‘last’ spring to mind). The sad fact is that other than the spiritual dimsension, Fellside has the ring of realism, with a complex system of rules that have little to do with how the officials would see matters governed. A recent prison inspector resigned because he recognised that he had lost perspective on the system, having come to think that ‘only’ two suicides since a previous inspection was decent enough, when of course the only acceptable number should be zero. Similarly, we see how Doctor Salazar had arrived at Fellside an avenging angel and had gradually lost each of his principles, one by one.
Fellside was a thought-provoking novel, conjuring up a vivid sense of the inner fiefdom as well as a surprisingly sympathetic heroine in Jess. Despite her faults, we engage with her suffering and Carey made her arc of re-discovery highly compelling. This was however a story of where the wild things are, with little in the way of uplift for counter-balance. Not something that I would re-read, but a story I think likely to stick in the mind. Carey’s envisaging of the spirit world was a fascinating one and the sparse style of story-telling meant that the story never felt over-blown. Definitely an unusual read for me but one that I found hard to put down.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Hachette UK on April 7th 2016
Genres: Fiction, General, Thrillers, Supernatural, Suspense, Ghost, Psychological, Science Fiction
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