Fellside is a prison, a correctional facility for women to be precise, where three thousand women ‘form a community committed to a practical ideal of rehabilitation’. Sounds idyllic. Not. A women’s prison is not a place that most people get to see the inside of, but we sure get plenty of insight from programmes like Bad Girls, Orange is the New Black, and Wentworth. Really tough women, young and old, fighting to survive. Fellside is no different.
There have been a number of best-selling novels in the last few years which have as their central premise a young woman who has suffered memory loss. Jess Moulson is yet another young woman in the unfortunate position of having her life dramatically affected by amnesia.
The story opens with Jess regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, handcuffed to the bed, being treated for serious burns, smoke inhalation. Gradually, she remembers that she was involved in a fire in her flat that led to the death of a ten-year-old boy who lived in the flat upstairs. Jess is a drug addict and has vague recollection that she set the fire for reasons that she can’t quite recall. By page 25 she has been found guilty of murder, the subject of the most awful press coverage, and sentenced to Fellside. Her court-appointed lawyer is doubtful that the full and factual story has come out but can’t get Jess to see sense, her guilt at the death of young Alex completely overwhelming her.
So life in prison begins, and it’s not a bed of roses. Now, I am not a fan of supernatural or fantasy fiction, I really just do not get it. But very cleverly the author who, under a pen name has written for Marvel comics and writes his own graphic fiction, introduces what can only be called a ghost character – a young boy who comes to Jess in her sleep, in her dreams, taking her with him to his world. She is convinced this is the spirit of Alex, and gradually realises that he is helping her to see what really happened the night of the fire. And so the mystery of Alex’s death begins to be solved.
But it is definitely creepy, weird and unsettling. At the same time as Jess is moving between the real world and the spirit world, she has to adapt to prison life in all its ruthlessness, cruelty, bent prison officers, and survival of the fittest code. It is pretty grim. What was interesting and did help to soften the brutality was the back stories of the prisoners and how they came to be in Fellside, including Jess’s own story. As awful as they all are, terrible things happened to the women that led them to prison, so it is hardly surprising the terror continues.
At nearly 500 pages, already one can see that there is lot going on in this novel. It is tricky to define what sort of novel it is – a psychological thriller? Murder mystery? Supernatural? Fantasy? Horror? At times it does wobble, and for me, I did lose my way with all the wanderings Jess and Alex’s spirit do in the pursuit of justice. But living in such a prison environment, wouldn’t you too want to escape to inside your head?
If you get past all the spooky action, then this is actually quite a riveting story. Life in the prison is graphically depicted, all the characters are very well drawn with great depth, there are lots of twists in the plot and surprises. And in the end, justice is served.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
by M.R. Carey
Published by Orbit