Prison novels aren’t my usual cup of tea but boy, this was a good story. Jess wakes up in a hospital room with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. When she finds out, she’s horrified at what she seems to have done. Fellside is the name of the women’s prison where she ends up. Jess is like that relative everyone has who can’t seem to straighten out her own life, a bundle of weaknesses and bad decisions, but there’s more to her than meets the eye.
I read this without knowing anything about it except that it’s by the author of The Girl With All the Gifts which I remembered as one of those books you can’t put down once you start. That’s what I was looking for after finishing a frothy memoir, and wow, this delivered.
It’s suspenseful and well crafted – you feel like you’re always a step ahead of Jess, whose thinking is clouded by guilt, because of subtle hints that make you wonder just before you find out that yeah, what you were thinking was right. Very satisfying feeling. It’s a ghost story and a mystery. And at its heart, it’s about atonement. What do we owe to other people? How far would you go to keep a promise? And it’s about good and evil – are you really good if you’ve never been faced with a temptation or a threat that could send you down the other path? At what point does the balance tip? And how much do you really know about the other people you’re making judgments about?
It’s definitely a prison novel. Fellside is a private prison with a CEO-style governor (we’d call that job warden where I live) and a mix of good people and bad ones on both sides of the warder (correctional officer)/prisoner divide. It’s uncomfortable to read sometimes, but it feels like there’s a lot of truth in it. It’s obviously well researched. I hope it inspires some readers to feel a little more compassion for the people caught up in the system.