There are many things that define us as human – the need for belonging and connection, a craving for justice, a fear of the unknown, violence, tenderness, love, the need for redemption and forgiveness, and a curiosity about happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil.
All of these defining elements come into play in M. R. Carey’s masterful new book Fellside, the follow-up to his highly acclaimed The Girl With All the Gifts which gave us a refreshingly new take on the much told story of the zombie apocalypse.
In much the same way, Fellside takes the much-hackneyed prison drama trope and subverts and inverts it, giving us many of the standard constituent parts but from a whole new a vantage point, with the focus very much on the humanity and inhumanity of people trapped behind bars.
Set in the privately-run maximum prison of Fellside, atop the precipitous bleakness of the Yorkshire Moors near Leeds, the book centres on Jess Moulson, a heroin junkie who is sentenced for the murder of 10 year old Alex Breech, a young boy who died when the fire Jess set one night while high consumes much of the apartment building in which they both live.
“Jess woke to find herself already sitting up, her heart hammering . The dream was gone, the normal world was back. But only up to a point. She knew that the normal world was a dream too. You could wake up from it any time you liked.” (P. 46)
Utterly lost to despair and disconsolate, a facially-disfigured Jess embarks on a hunger strike, convinced the only penance she can give that has any worth is giving up her own life.
Ignoring entreaties from her beloved Aunt Freda and her lawyer to recognise her terminally-weighted course of action, Jess is only convinced to abandon her self-destructive path when she becomes convinced that Alex is speaking to her and asking her to seek justice on her behalf.
This is where Carey introduces a fantastical supernatural element to proceedings with Jess finding herself reconnected to The Other Place, a shapeless place that exists in dreams and death, defined less by physical landmarks than by thoughts, feelings and the tortured machinations of peoples’ psyches.
It is a place she fled as a child, convinced by her now-dead mother and a child psychologist that it was just a figment of her imagination, a way of coping with emotional upheaval and trauma; but of course, it’s far more than that and as Fellside progresses, we’re introduced to this other realm more and more and discover just how great a part it plays in guiding and informing our waking hours.
The brilliance of Fellside is that weaves so many deep human traits and imperatives seamlessly into an utterly engrossing narrative.
A narrative which grows to encompass not just Jess but a number of her fellow women prisoners and the staff , all of whom are thoroughly entangled in the hurt and pain of a thousand poor decisions, the ramifications of which lead them to entertain either the basis of human desires and actions, or to seek redemption, something pretty much everyone in the book craves, whether they will own up to it or not.
At its heart though, this is Jess’s story – a young woman who feels the weight of a life poorly lived on a number of different levels, who is convinced she is a monster even as she becomes ever more aware of the monstrous people all around her carving their own pieces of living hell from bloodied and bruised presents.
While many of the other characters are aware deep down they have failed and are deeply, horribly existentially damaged, only Jess seems to be aware of this on a conscious level, making her uniquely able to begin to understand what is happening around her as Alex, manifesting as a ghost wholly at home navigating the otherworldly environs of the Other Place, urges to help him remember who he is and what happened to him.
“But this wasn’t water she walking through. It was lives. And Alex was right when he said that distance mattered. From far away, the waves were made of millions of droplets. Close up, each droplet was another wave, each wave another world that you could step right into and then step right on through.” (P. 243)
It may sound like a straightforward albeit supernaturally-imbued quest for justice and in many ways it is, but far more than that under Carey’s nuanced and insightful hand, it is also a grappling with identity, with determining who we really are and whether the mistakes and missteps of our past, and the psychic toll they take upon us can ever be fixed and forgiven.
There is a lyrical elegance to Carey’s prose, which is both sublimely beautiful and descriptive while being unflinchingly realistic and brutal at the same time about humanity’s true nature.
Fellside manages to be both brutally honest about who we are and how far we fall from our ideals while remaining heartfelt and honest about the fact that redemption is possible.
At the heart of its redemptive tale is the deep bond that forms between Jess, who cannot remember the events of the night that led to her incarceration, and Alex, a little lost boy who may be hiding more in his semi-amnesiac afterlife state tham either or Jess know.
The warmth and tenderness between the purported murderer and victim is heartwarming without being cheesily lachrymose and it sits firmly within two quite disparate worlds – the grim realities of the waking world and the Other Place where the usual rules most definitely do not apply.
Quite which world is the most authentic is never determined but as you read through Fellside and its many absorbing, engrossing twists and turns, you come to suspect that the real monsters may not live in the dreams and amorphous emotions of the Other Place but rather in the real world which can be as ghastly or as redemptive as we choose to make it.