Fellside by M R Carey

After the Unwritten graphic novel series and The Girl with All the Gifts, M R Carey ( Pen name ) is now one of my all time favorite writer. His novels are a reality-check, a sucker-punch to the guts in the way things finally unfold, mostly bleak and grim but the overall narratives work wonders in terms of driving the plot forward. I love his novels.

And so with Fellside. If you are here seeking a 'spiritual' sequel to Girl with All the Gifts or are looking to be taken on a similar flow, then you are going to be disappointed. Fellside is a different book - a book much closer to reality dealing with pain, guilt and greed - all things human in a very grim book set inside a maximum-security prison.

But that short description really doesn't do the book justice - as Carey paints a sympathetic picture of Jess Moulson, the girl accused of manslaughter of a ten-year old boy and having deliberately set the apartment complex on fire, while being high on drugs. Jess is on a guilt-trip, a downward spiral and really has nothing to look forward to in life. Having been sentenced to imprisonment inside Fellside, Jess decides to starve herself to death. But things within Fellside take on a completely different trajectory - bringing Jess back to terms with how ugly and fragile life itself can be.

With Fellside, Carey sets out to explore the human mind ( in a setting as real as it can get, a prison as opposed to the post-apocalyptic world). The level of suffering and abuse it can take on and still trudge on - and he lays this over with supernatural elements ( So Jess who's been able to transcend through others' dreams frequently does so with the help of a 'new friend' she makes inside the walls. )

It's quite a depressing book, if you look at things lopsided - life inside the prison, brutal, ugly and as fragile as a silk thread. The characters that Carey introduces the reader to within the prison - are all highly flawed with their own vested agenda revolving around survival. I was particularly impressed by the character of Harriet Grace, the uncrowned queen within the jail who's got her fingers in every other pie ( or racket) running within and without the prison walls. So much so, that the trusted warden Devlin is her puppet - a lover who dances to her tunes and sets up all the illegal trafficking goods business that Grace is running inside Fellside. And then there's Dr. Salazar, the man who's cowed down by the 'accidents' in his life and has given up on his dream of making the prison a better place. A coward who cannot stand up against the bullying by Devlin or Grace. In addition, Carey also takes time to flesh out a lot many side characters who really bring out the oppressive nature of that living within the walls of the prison. It goes on to establish that Fellside is a world in itself. Complex relationships, strict hierarchy, intransigent rules and a whole bunch of weird inmates for whom suffering, violence and death have become a way of life. Jess definitely is the outlaw here and to make matters worse, her frequent astral projections into the other-world space leaves her much more of an outsider than ever.

Carey writes as engaging well as ever - building up sympathy for the central character of Jess who's got problems in the real world as well as other different planes. The way he brings in the supernatural elements into the narrative makes her story-arc pretty compelling. The book's got its flaws - it takes too long for us to get going, there are characters' whose stories are downright shudder-inducing, the violence is too real and too close to life and Jess' frequent trips into the Other space really loses sheen pretty fast ( at least for me!) It's like Carey really doesn't want to fictionalize the truths inside a prison and is giving us the raw real deal. But in the middle of this extremely realistic situation, he wants us to do a suspension of disbelief and go on a dream-trip with his heroine. I am not sure it works as effectively.

But as a novel, while not quite a strong follow-up to the Girl with All the Gifts ( because hey, you cannot help but draw a parallel) Fellside is definitely a scary, all-too realistic a walk on the other side of the wall - the line between harsh reality of a prison and the fantasy elements of a dream is blurry but Carey's strong writing turns out to be the winner here, making this grimly hopeful prison-story an eminently readable choice. 


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