Review: “Fellside,” M.R. Carey

Pros: Fascinating story and characters
Cons: A bit slow and roundabout
Rating: 4 out of 5

“It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.” That’s the dynamite first line that introduces M.R. Carey’s Fellside. Jess Moulson is a heroin addict who apparently started a fire in her apartment that killed the ten-year-old boy, Alex, in another flat. Her face is messed up despite the number of surgeries she undergoes, and when she ends up in Fellside prison, she’s ready to die by starving herself. Then Alex’s ghost comes to her, and she discovers something to live for. Unfortunately, the rest of the inmates don’t share her priorities.

 

I like that there are some decent people at the prison, among both the Wardens and the prisoners. It’s all too easy in prison settings for authors to make them monolithic. That isn’t a problem here. There’s good, bad, and everything in-between. People who want to do good but are afraid to. People who have no qualms about using and even killing a person. There are few true paragons of anything. Jess, who believes she killed Alex because of all of the evidence presented (she doesn’t entirely remember what happened), is ready to face her punishment–until Alex’s ghost comes to her and tells her that he thinks she didn’t kill him. (His memory is scattered, too.) At one point I had difficulty believing that she was willing to die rather than sneak drugs into the prison for the resident drug dealer–after all, then she wouldn’t have been able to help Alex any more.

Alex isn’t a goodness-and-light sort of ghost. He takes on a darker cast as things progress, such as giving horrific nightmares to people who threaten Jess. If she wants to know whether she killed him, she needs him to remember the horrible things that happened. But Alex isn’t entirely playing along with Jess’s program.

Fellside is a commercially-run prison. There are other wings besides the one Jess is placed in, but we’re focused on G block (otherwise known as State of Grace, for the prisoner who rules it with an iron fist). Grace is one of the greatest dangers to Jess’s plans–her and her pet Warden, Devlin. I found the relationship between Grace and Devlin to be fascinating. It wasn’t how I might have expected it to be. She also has some thugs at her beck and call, in particular Lizzie, who is filled with hate and violence. Even she, however, isn’t as simple as she seems.

We spend some time in the infirmary, with two nurses and a doctor on staff. Salazar, the doctor, tries to do the right thing but usually fails. Nurse Stock treats Jess very harshly since she thinks anyone who could kill a child deserves all the badness they get. Patience, the other nurse, is genuinely caring and helpful, but she still can’t do much to help Jess. They’re all good characters, and it’s interesting to see a prison story where the infirmary is a complex ecosystem unto itself.

“Most people only see me when they’re asleep. You saw me when you were awake. It was nice. It was nice to be seen.”

Early in the book we find out that Jess’s rich childhood imagination involved an ‘other place’ that she supposedly visited as well as a seemingly imaginary friend. The implication is that she can see ghosts because in some way, she’s different from other people. Her abilities, as well as Alex’s, get explored in quite interesting manners.

As in The Girl With All The Gifts, events took a few turns I wasn’t expecting, and the ending enthralled me.

There are also a few darkly amusing bits here and there. Salazar impotently plots revenge on Devlin, and ranks his plans for doing so by performing a risk analysis and costing them out.

Fellside didn’t bowl me over the way The Girl With All The Gifts did, but it fascinated me nonetheless.

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