Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tuesday, February 16, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Fellside


Orbit: Fellside by M.R. Carey

Orbit: Fellside by M.R. Carey

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Orbit: Fellside by M.R. Carey

Fellside

by M.R. Carey

A young boy is dead. Alex Beech was 10 years old, and home alone when his apartment building caught fire. The coroner's report was conclusive: death by smoke inhalation, his body gruesomely if predictably distorted by the raging fire that melted the plastic playhouse where he sought shelter in the final moments of his life. Within days of the fire, the police and the public have come to the conclusion that his death was no accident. Alex was an unintended murder victim, and Jess Moulson is the one who killed him.

Tragedy hunted Jess from the start. Her father was a raging alcoholic who "crashed and raged in the maze of her childhood memories like an intermittent minotaur." Her mother, Paula, was as addicted to him as he was to the bottle, and Jess was raised picking up the pieces of their tumultuous relationship. Wary of the slippery slope, Jess studiously avoided anything which might grow into a habit until a broken collarbone got her an Oxycodone prescription. Oxy led to heroin, which led to a dirty flat in North London where she and her boyfriend, John, slowly liquidated their belongings, collapsing one vein after another as they shot up their dwindling funds.

Alex was Jess's upstairs neighbor, the only child of a couple who spent the little time they were at home in screaming matches with their son and with each other. As the prosecution presented it, the evidence was clear: Jess and John had fought. Jess, high and out of her mind with anger, set the apartment ablaze with the intent to kill her boyfriend. He escaped, she was rescued from the flames in the depths of an opiate fog, and Alex was the fire's only victim.

Unable to remember the events of that night, Jess becomes so convinced of her own guilt that she decides to kill herself, refusing food for weeks on end as she wastes away in the Fellside prison infirmary. As Jess's body atrophies and her vital functions weaken, Alex begins to visit. He wanders through her dreams, begging her for help. She didn't kill him, he says, but she can find out who did. There was a nice girl, he says, who protected him, and a mean one who hurt him. Jess sees a chance for redemption, or maybe vengeance. She believes that if she can bring Alex justice, she will have done at least one selfless thing in her life. And so she decides to live.

Outside the infirmary, Fellside makes Orange Is the New Black look like summer camp. A private women's prison on the Yorkshire moors, it's an evil place where addiction and corruption darken every interaction. When Jess is healthy enough to enter the prison population, she's sent to the maximum-security wing, known officially as Goodall and locally as the State of Grace. Harriet Grace is at the top of Goodall wing's twisted food-chain, controlling the flow of illicit materials in and out of the wing with the help of a crew of shank-wielding flunkies. No perceived slight to her authority is too small, and no punishment too harsh.

M.R. Carey's (The Girl with All the Gifts) prose is elegant and streamlined, with occasional lush imagery bubbling up out of the darkness. When Alex visits Jess, he comes at night, walking with her through a dream world where the thoughts and souls of the other prisoners flicker like candle flames. Jess wanders among them, unaware at first of the effect she is having on the fires she touches. And then Fellside starts to dream. The inmates of G-block dream about Jess, and they dream about Alex, and they are afraid. In Fellside, the world of dreams is as real as the waking world, and what Jess does there will have the furthest-reaching consequences of all.

Carey's novel is dark, much darker than many thrillers that feature more brutal crimes or more explicitly evil villains. The ecosystem of addiction and coercion is far stronger than any individual's desire to do the right thing. The only true power the characters wield is the power to choose the circumstances of their own death. When Grace decides she wants to expand her illicit business into other cell blocks, she enlists Jess and the prison doctor as mules. Grace brings Jess in line with the help of Liz Earnshaw, a violent and volatile woman who acts as her attack dog. Neither Jess nor the doctor is interested in abetting her abhorrent trade, and yet every attempt to resist ends in bloodshed.

Fellside's appeal lies in its unflinching depiction of powerlessness. There are no authorities waiting in the wings to end the madness. There is nowhere to hide. It is a crushing, enthralling fantasy, tugging at a deep-seated fear--that something which comes in a pill or a glass could bring the trappings of civilization crashing down around us, that all our best intentions mean nothing at all. There are characters, like Jess and the doctor, who wish sincerely to do the right thing. There are others, like Grace and Devlin, a crooked warder, interested in nothing but themselves. Most interesting of all are those in the middle, like Liz Earnshaw, whose motives remain for the most part unfathomable. For all of them, however, the answer is the same. There is no doing the "right thing," only following the path set before them or perishing in the name of protest. --Emma Page

Orbit, $27, hardcover, 9780316300285

Orbit: Fellside by M.R. Carey


M.R. Carey: Addiction and Dreams

photo: Charlie Hopkinson

M.R. Carey is an Oxford-educated Liverpool native who has been writing comics since the early 1990s. In addition to writing for DC and Marvel Comics, he is a screenwriter and the author of several novels, including the critically acclaimed The Girl with All the Gifts, published in 2014. His new novel is Fellside.

How did the experience of writing Fellside compare to your other work? Did this feel like much of a departure, or were you working in a relatively comfortable mode? 

It felt quite new. I was trying to fuse together a very realistic prison novel with a supernatural fantasy about ghosts and the power of dreams, and it felt like that called for a different approach and a different voice than I'd used in Girl. It does still use multiple points of view, which the story seemed to need, but in every other respect it's very much its own thing. Very dark, emotionally very raw and brutal in places, but with an ending that allows us some very hard-earned comfort.

Fellside Prison is a very striking setting. What kind of research did you do into private prisons and women's prisons?

It's been a long process, and as with Girl it's been a kind of composite in that I've been working on a movie version of the story alongside the novel. As the treatment for the movie screenplay came together I did a lot of primary research with Camille Gatin, the producer, and director Colm McCarthy. We met with a senior psychiatrist who is the clinical lead for drug awareness and response in one of the London boroughs, and through him we were able to make contact with his counterpart at a major women's prison in the U.K. We toured the prison and talked with some of the inmates. We went to open meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. All of these things fed into the creative process quite late. In a sense I was filling in the fine detail around an emotional core that didn't change much at all.

Addiction seems to be the single most powerful villain in the book, across the board. Did you set out to write about addiction?

Yes--addiction and dreams. I've known a lot of addicts, some of them people who were very close to me and very much a part of my life. I've seen how it works, and what it does both to addicts and to the people who love them. In a way, it's a subject I've been steering clear of for a long time, and it felt like it was time to see if I could go there.

But the dream side of the story is equally important. There's an idea in the book of the dream state as a sort of collective human property or territory, and there's also the idea that it shares a border with death. I think it was Tennyson's In Memoriam that put that idea into my head. When we dream, the things that bubble up come from different depths in our mind. Some are just the detritus of the day. Others come from so deep they're not really ours. They belong to the bits of our brain that are pre-human. I wanted to have my protagonist trying to navigate that space with her waking mind.

In what ways do you think agency and addiction interact in the context of crime and punishment? 

That's such a complex question. Drugs are everywhere in prisons, of course, and they're a massive part of the prison economy. Arguably the drug empire I depict in Fellside is slightly exaggerated, not in terms of its scale but in terms of its complexity. You wouldn't need to have the massively decentralized network of convicts and guards that Harriet Grace uses. You'd just need a couple of bent warders and a friend on the outside. But I don't feel that I exaggerated the scale of the problem. Drugs are probably the biggest source of control problems in prisons. And they're the third biggest source of prisoner deaths, after suicide and heart disease.

And, of course, the grim flip side of all this is that many people come into prison clean and come out as addicts. Drugs are very easy to get hold of, and the more stressed and unhappy you are the more tempting they become. It's a live issue, and there are a lot of debates going on about how best to handle it.

So I think the answer to your question is that drugs add a level of complexity to the prison equation that's very hard to define or quantify. Prison life is always hard. Addiction makes it harder.

Was there a particular reason you chose to write Fellside about a women's prison? Did you ever consider a different gender dynamic for the story?

Those addicts I referred to earlier, the ones who were very close to me--they were all women. So I think Jess was probably always going to turn out to be a woman. That's not to say that I based Jess on people I actually know. I drew on the experiences of those people, but she's not an alias for anybody.

The other thing that's going on here is that I went into a phase of writing stories with female protagonists five years ago, with The Steel Seraglio, and I'm still in it. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be a thing for me right now. I'm not a gender essentialist. I think human kit is mostly interchangeable. But almost everything in our society is gendered and our stories are no exception. Fellside would read very differently if all the key roles were enacted by men.

What kinds of redemption were you interested in portraying in Fellside

It's a tricky and subjective concept, and I think it tends to fall into the category of things that you don't know until you see them. We look for redemption in all kinds of unlikely places. But it comes, if it comes at all, on its own terms. We can try to buy it or to build it, but all we're really doing is building a nest-box and hoping it will come. In plain terms, I think we make accommodations with our own worse and better selves. All the time, in all kinds of ways. Redemption is part of that process. --Emma Page


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