Fellside - M. R. Carey
Fellside - M R Carey *****
MR Carey's Fellside isn't a novel that fits easily into any one category, yet somehow it manages to be an outstanding work on every level. It's part prison drama, it's part crime-thriller, it's part courtroom drama, and it's part fantasy. Mainly however - and possibly the reason it's successful on everyone of those levels, is that it's a great human drama, achieved just as much through the secondary characterisation as through the lead character whose life story spans all these genres.
It wasn't such a great life in the first place. At the start of Fellside, Jess Moulson wakes up in a hospital, unsure how she got there, her badly burnt face having undergone extensive reconstruction grafts. This is where her heroin addiction has taken her, the cheap run down flat that she shared with her boyfriend John Street destroyed in a fire, both of them scarcely making it out of the building, leaving Jess with a face destroyed beyond recognition. Worse than that, the fire that she apparently caused after a row with Street has resulted in the death of a young boy downstairs.
Whether Jess's guilt is firmly established or not - she can remember almost nothing of the events that led to the conflagration - she still feels responsible that at the very least her negligence and drug addiction has contributed to the death of a young child. Jess ends up in Fellside, a prison for women, but doesn't intend to stay there long and goes on hunger strike, hoping to bring about an end to her wasted life. While in a near-death state however, Jess experiences something that brings her back and gives her something to fight for.
Before Jess can make amends in a way that no-one can understand, she first has to survive life in prison. A significant part of Fellside is taken up with the familiar prison-drama events, involving beatings from psychotic inmates, crooked screws and drug dealing. It's not just the fantasy spin that makes this somewhat different from the usual prison drama, although Jess's night-time wanderings through the tortured dreams of its inmates and into the windows of their souls throws up some interesting imagery. What is more relevant is how Carey takes time and uses such insights to look beyond the familiar characterisation and find the human person beneath.
It's not just the prison inmates, but Carey pays attention to the prison warders, the medical staff at the prison, the director and out beyond that to the very small circle of people that Jess is involved with. The author plays a chess game then where everyone has their role to play, but it takes more than just making the right moves and getting them all into the right position. The motivation for each of them to behave as they do has to be believable, and all the more so considering the fantasy element that is there in the book.
Carey achieves this through some terrific writing, creating no end of dramatic situations, playing characters off one another with little revealing insights making their actions credible and in some cases, almost inevitable. There's nothing predictable about the outcome however, which hits you with twists and revelations on several fronts all at once. Carey seems to play on the familiar genre traditions and conventions, with even an impressive example of courtroom drama grandstanding, but the fact that he has inserted real people here who behave the way people in their position would be likely to act, means that he subtly undermines every expectation without undermining the integrity of the characters he has created.
Fellside by M.R. Carey is published by Orbit on 7th April 2016