I read (and reviewed) M R Carey’s previous book, The Girl With All The Gifts back in 2014 – I’d very much enjoyed it as a post-apocalypse, dystopian, not-quite-zombie novel but also as a really well-written story which I found pretty compulsive reading. So when I saw on Netgalley that a new book was in the offing I nearly bit their electronic hands off at the elbow (so to speak). The worst bit was that I am trying really hard to read stuff in order – so I don’t read stuff published in June before the titles coming out in April, for example – so I had to wait before I started it. I’m not good at waiting…
I was hoping for a similar sort of book – I certainly wanted it to be somewhere on the ‘speculative’ spectrum – so I was initially a little disappointed to find it seemed to be a more straightforward thriller. Jess Moulson, a drug-user with an abusive boyfriend, finds herself in Fellside, a maximum security prison, after she appears to have set a fire which killed a young neighbour. The writing is really gritty when describing Jess’s own injuries, the trial and the realities of prison life so I was enjoying it but, I suppose, I was hoping for something else. And then I started to realise that everything was not as simple as it seemed. Girl With All The Gifts had done the same thing, made me think it was ‘just a thriller’, when it hit me with the weirdness. And this did just the same.
I don’t want to say too much about what was unusual about what happens to Jess – suffice it to say that you soon realise that when she refers to an imaginary friend from her childhood they are not quite as imaginary as they first appear. And that sometimes prisons are not made of bricks and mortar but are part of our own minds. Or of the society which can condemn women (and men, of course) to a brutal prison regime.
One phrase that struck me – describing the boy who Jess seems to have killed in the fire – was that he slipped through ‘the kind of net that’s mostly made out of holes’. The fact that these nets are often the only thing between some people and a life of despair or even death is what makes this truly a horror story.