I first came across Angela Clarke at last year’s Writers’ Day put on by The Literary Consultancy. She gave a great talk about how she maintains a web presence – tips I have aspired to live up to – but her fiction was a genre I’m not a great fan of so I didn’t, ahem, read any of her books. Until, that is, she sent me a pre-publication one for free.
On My Life is a book I read in three sessions and which will stay on my shelf rather than being given away. This is a psychological thriller that transcends its genre, with an indictment of how the UK criminal justice system fails women prisoners in general, and the unborn babies of pregnant women prisoners in particular. Add to this the underlying themes of class and addiction, and this is one powerful novel.
The plot is simple: Jenna is arrested for a gruesome crime she did not commit. She is thrown in jail, and has to find a way to survive. The system in which she finds herself is brutal and that brutality is reinforced by being impersonal. Her case grinds on almost in her absence with her access to her lawyer, and to the courts, being through video rather than in person; as there are hints of sexual deviancy in her crime, she is forced to shun the other prisoners lest they find out. And, to add to this, she finds out (it’s on the front cover, which I think is a mistake by the marketing department) she is pregnant.
The story is narrated in two times streams, now and then, the then narrating the events leading up to the crime, and the now narrating Jenna’s bleak and increasingly violent time in prison. Both streams move at a cracking pace, with short sentences, short chapters and hooks to keep you reading. Yet, despite this, the author manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere, the oppression, and how there is little in prison to do but brood.
And Jenna does brood. In the then time stream, she stumbles upon bits of information, little hints and giveaways that ultimately solve her crime: how the man of her dreams turned out to be a flawed man from a flawed family, how her own past with a substance-addicted mother and no father came to catch up on her, and how in leaving her past behind, she had also left behind an important part of her identity. The passages describing how her dream relationship forced her to be someone she was not were amongst the strongest in the book:
But I do love him. I love him and Emily [his daughter] so much. I have never felt as happy as I do when we’re together. And every relationship involves compromise, doesn’t it? That’s just what this is. Robert is not your average man, he needs a wife who will support him and the business. Plenty of Emily’s friends’ mothers don’t work. It’s normal in this world. I squash the panicked thought of a life full of charity lunches and organizing Robert’s shirts.
The sense of self-deception is wonderfully portrayed, and much of the crime hinges on it. But the now, too, has some wonderful passages:
I don’t tell her that I’m into my second [trimester], that I should have had my scan, that I’ve been so frightened of anyone finding out I haven’t fought for my baby’s rights. That I’ve already failed by child. I should get up. I should be working on a new plan. A baby can’t live in here.
And this part of the underlying message of the book is what carries it beyond the genre: the author does voluntary work with prisoners, and what she’s learned shows.
There are a couple of loose ends. The book mentions in the earlier passages that Jenna’s dream man, is part of the “Freemasons Club.” As a freemason myself, I often have a chuckle at what authors think we get up to (Jo Nesbo had us standing around with our willies out, which I found downright hilarious), but that particular aspect of the plot went nowhere. I also found myself becoming impatient with Jenna’s inability to come to terms with the fact that the system is broken – deal with it, survive, I found myself shouting. But these flaws are trifles. This is a great read, fast-paced and intelligent. Keep an eye open for when it hits the shelves.