Fellside – M R Carey

What is justice, and who among us are truly innocent?  Those are the questions posed by M R Carey in his sublime and redemptive novel Fellside (Orbit, review copy from NetGalley).

Jess Moulson wakes up in hospital with horrific burns and no memory of the fire that caused them.  But she finds herself on trial for the murder of a small boy, accused of setting the fire that led to his death from smoke inhalation.  Convicted, she is sent to the notorious high security wing of Fellside women’s prison.  Filled with self-loathing for the crime she believes she committed, Jess goes on hunger strike, but is saved by the ghost of the boy she befriended and who died in the fire.  With the ghost boy’s help she seeks to unravel what really happened on the night of the fire.

Fellside would be a rough place, even if Jess wasn’t known as a child-killer.  The high-security wing is controlled by the ruthless and violent Harriet Grace.  Along with the corrupt Head of Security, Devlin, Grace runs a drugs empire throughout the prison.  When she tries to recruit Jess as a drugs mule during the appeal of her conviction they are thrown into a conflict that threatens to bring down the whole of Fellside.

Fellside deals with some profound themes about the nature of justice.  The justice system itself only deals with those cases that are brought before it, and while it is capable of establishing the facts of a case, it does so on the basis of only the evidence put before it.  In the case of the amnesiac Jess, it will only ever be able to reach a partial view.  And it fails Jess as an addict and the victim of domestic violence, until she is reconciled enough with herself to seek to re-open the case.  But the system fails to address the greater crimes of Grace and Devlin, whose positions of relative power give them a measure of control over it.

We are asked to consider who is guilty and who is innocent.  Dr Salazar, the essentially good-hearted prison doctor has been so ground down by the environment that he works in that he colludes with, and facilitates the crimes of others, and never feels he has the ability to challenge what is going on within the prison.  One of his nurses causes harm by acting with a real lack of compassion, based on her own prejudices.  And Jess is not the only offender who is also a victim – Grace brutally exploits the vulnerability of other prisoners, including her own heavies.

But for all its bleakness, Fellside is an uplifting story of justice and redemption.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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