Fellside, by M R Carey

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Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

Review: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading Fellside. The author apparently did a fantastic job with another well-known and popular novel (I haven’t read it, which is why I say ‘apparently’), but that didn’t mean this one would be equally as great. Still, I was more than willing to take a chance and see where it all led me, to see if Carey could weave a story as complex and compelling as I’d been told by other reviewers.

Turns out the answer is yes. Yes, Carey can. Fellside turned out to be more than a murder mystery with a twist, more than a prison ghost story, but an exploration of expectations and falsehoods, of the lengths to which people will go to get what they want, and a story in which nobody is blameless.

The story starts with Jess waking up in a hospital, badly burned from a fire she’s being accused of starting, a fire which claimed the life of a young neighbour boy. She remembers this only vaguely, having been high on heroin at the time. Consumed by guilt and knowing that she’ll spend the rest of her life in a high-security women’s prison anyway, she makes the decision to end her life by starvation, a slow suicide to atone for her crime. That is, until she makes happenchance contact with a ghost, a ghost she firmly believes to be the boy she killed, who himself is convinced that Jess was not to blame for his death.

Murder mysteries in which a dead person helps the accused uncover the identity of the real killer aren’t unheard of, but they’re uncommon enough that even if the rest of the novel had focused solely on this plot, it would have held interest for me. But there’s so much more to Fellside than that. Life in Fellside prison isn’t exactly kind to Jess, though there are most certainly moments of rough kindness going on, but between a long-running drug-ring and other abuses of power, to Jess’s attempts to not only prove but also believe her own innocence, there’s a rich and varied tapestry of story at work here, told from multiple viewpoints of some extremely messed-up and flawed characters. Even when you sympathize with some of their positions, they’re often hard to sympathize with as people. Everyone is guilty of something, even if that ‘something’ is cowardice that allows a rotten situation to continue when they know a well-timed word could end it.

But some characters are more sympathetic than others, for certain. It’s hard to find much to like about Devlin or Grace, as they’re extremely self-centered and out for each other. The only point of sympathy I can find for Devlin is that he genuinely seems to want to please Grace and believes that the feeling is mutual, but even then, that’s slim sympathy, and he’s still someone I think would be better off dead. But even characters like Liz, scary as she is, become far more sympathetic when you learn more of her history, and when she was first introduced, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to feel so much for her character by the end. She’s a deeply hurt human being, struggling with numerous terrible scars, and while she’s still not exactly a character you want to root for, her story is brilliant and as compelling as Jess’s, in its way.

And then you get characters like Paul Levine, who is undeniably creepy with his misplaced affection for Jess, which drives his desire to do anything he can to please her, even when it means possibly sabotaging her appeal by finding irrelevent-to-the-case info. But that obsessive affection turns out to be the thing that has him looking in all the weird places and results in evidence coming to light that ultimately proves Jess’s innocence. With him it’s a weird case, because people like Paul are rather disturbing in their desires, but you can’t deny that those twisted emotions led to a good place in the end. How much does the end outweigh the means, or the motivation? How much bad gets to be done in the name of goodness and justice?

That’s not a one-time theme in Fellside, either. You see that thread run through multiple story arcs, in one form or another. It’s never a clear-cut issue, either. There’s a prison nurse who treats Jess extremely badly in early sections of the book, believing her to be a child-killer and thinking that Jess certainly didn’t need any gentleness as she was starving herself to death. And many people, I think, would agree with her assessment of that; why make comfortable somebody who committed a heinous crime and is trying to die in penance anyway? Only hindsight and third-person omniscience show that Jess didn’t commit the crime she was convicted of. Morality is a complicated issue, truth can be subjective, and yes, some people do terrible things in the name of justice. Everybody is guilty of something.

But my favourite theme of the book was how expectations shape reality. I suppose that ties back in with what I just said, given that whether or not Jess committed a crime, people believing she did affected how they behaved toward her. Jess’s expectation of her own guilt and punishment nearly led to her death. Paul’s expectation of Jess’s gratitude took him to extraordinary lengths to find evidence of her innocence. But far more than that, there’s the issue of Alex’s ghost, who keeps giving Jess contradictory information about his own life, about Jess’s hand in his death. How he and Jess are capable on influencing the dreams of people around them, and the far-reaching effects of that. I don’t want to give away too much of the story or too many big reveals, but suffice it to say that little is what it appears to be when it comes to Jess and Alex, that their stories run fascinatingly deep, and that perceptions can be true and yet still wrong.

So after all that, Fellside turned out to be an unexpectedly great novel that approached multiple complicated issues from multiple angles, and for that I think it deserves some praise. For the author being able to keep track of everything and make it a properly coherent story, if nothing else! It won’t appeal to all readers, since as much as I can say that depictions of brutality in prison were apt, they weren’t really to my taste in reading, and some scenes were very emotionally charged and difficult to get through. But it was, regardless, a wonderful mystery that kept me guessing on some things right to the very end, and it managed to wrap things up with only a couple of minor dangling plot threads when all was said and done. I’m certain now that I want to see more of Carey’s work in the future; if it’s anything like this, I expect nuance and complexity all over the place, in the right amounts to keep me intrigued and entertained until the last page. Recommended for those who enjoy a good supernatural murder mystery and are up for some frank discussions of unpleasant prison realities along the way.

(Received for review from the publisher.)