Fellside | M.R. Carey | 2016 | Orbit | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Jess Moulson wakes in hospital she can remember very little about the reason for her terrible injuries, the burns that have remoulded her face. But so slowly, with her own memories resurfacing as well as the reaction of others towards her, she begins to remember and knows that she deserves Fellside. Fellside is a high security and privately-owned prison for women, located somewhere in the hills of northern England, a place to strike awe into those who see it emerging from the landscape but something very different indeed for the people who must endure its walls.
Inside Fellside, Jess must cope with more than her quiet, certain guilt. The prison is run not by the Governor but by one of its inmates, Harriet Grace, and this is a reign of terror. Everyone is expected to do Grace’s bidding, to find their place in her hierarchy of misery, but Jess is different. And one reason for this is the voices she hears in her head as well as an extraordinary ability to walk through people’s dreams. But Jess knows that this is the only freedom she deserves and, while her lawyers fight to prove her innocent, Jess is fully resigned to her fate within these terrible walls of Fellside.
But there is much more to Fellside – and the prison that gives the novel its name – than this and all I will say is that M.R. Carey expertly mixes a powerful, visceral prison drama with something supernatural and decidedly creepy. But the nature of this is only slowly revealed and it is riveting and at times disturbing and surprisingly emotional.
At the heart of Fellside is Jess Moulson, a wonderful figure, deeply traumatised and in need of help and yet held captive within the most horrendous environment. The other prisoners and the guards are also depicted in colourful, sharp portraits, with some verging on the grotesque and inhuman. This is a place that changes those unlucky enough to be confined within it. Fellside is also a violent and shocking novel. Sections of it did make me wince.
M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts was one of my favourite books of 2014 and, as a result, I have been longing to read Fellside. Fellside is, though, very different but both novels share the very distinct quality of playing with genre as well as our preconceptions and attitudes. They are also both extremely well-written and out of the ordinary.
I didn’t enjoy Fellside as much The Girl With All the Gifts, largely, I think, because I found Jess much harder to emphasise with than the astonishing Melanie. Melanie is one of my most loved figures in contemporary fiction – I think she’s nigh on impossible to match. There is also a point in the novel at which Jess makes a decision that absolutely infuriated me and from that point on I had some trouble. I also didn’t find the novel as scary as I’d hoped but the fault with that lies with my expectations, not the book.
Nevertheless, Fellside is an extraordinary novel, particularly its first half, and since finishing it I’ve found that it’s lingered in my mind. There are some fantastic characters among the inmates and they exist within a powerfully dense, rich and threatening atmosphere. The star of the novel, for me, is Fellside itself, a dark place where one can easily imagine evil plays.
The Girl With All the Gifts
Also reviewed at Blue Book Balloon