Heroin addict Jessica Moulson receives a life tariff for starting a fire that causes the death of a small boy. She had no intention of harming the boy Alex – didn’t know that he was even in the building. But the prosecution claimed that she did intend to kill her fellow addict boyfriend & she was convicted on his testimony, which legally makes her a child killer. At 1st sight that seems unfair, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Suppose I’m in the zebra crossing along with your ex, whom you try to run over with your motor car, only the ex jumps safely out of the way & you obliterate me instead. You’ve certainly murdered me even tho’ you never so intended.
If you’ve read books like Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls, you know what public fury & media frenzy those convicted of murdering innocent children arouse, & prison inmates are as judgemental as most of us, so we’re not surprised that Jess will become an object of opprobrium & a target for bullying. Which logically & morally is senseless in her case, but brings out the distinction between legal guilt & moral responsibility. She is only supposed to have tired to kill the druggie boyfriend, so whilst legally she is guilty for the death of the child, morally she is blameworthy only for encompassing death of boyfriend. Even before we learn a lot more about him in this book, we’d hardly see his demise worthy public outrage.
Thinking about that paradox was only the beginning of the moral & spiritual issues you’ll find yourself facing in Fellside. I think M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts was a better executed story, but Fellside is on a higher artistic level. Both are quest stories. Girl with All the Gifts a journey quest whose progenitors are The Odyssey, the Anabasis, the Morte d’Arthur, Pilgrim’s Progress, Journal of the Plague Year & The Lord of the Rings. These recount journeys by a group of friends trying to find their way to a safe haven through many dangerous adventures. The present story is a katabasis, a descensus Averno, like the sixth book of the Aeneid, the gospel of Nicodemus, & Dane’s Inferno. H.M. Prison Fellside is supposed to be in the Yorkshire moors geographically; spiritually it is directly over the pit of Hell. Normally on such a quest the pilgrim voyager is accompanied by a spirit-guide: Aeneas by his father Anchises, Dante by Virgil. Jess’s spirit-guide is apparently the ghost of the dead boy Alex who perished in the fire she was convicted of starting. Jess initially attempts to starve herself till as she approaches death she meets this spirit in her dreams who leads her to choosing life, even life in prison. Slowly Jess develops her spiritual powers & her friendship with this spirit, who gradually reveals yet another identity.
You may read other reviewers who were disappointed by Fellside, because they loved The Girl with All the Gifts & wanted another adventure story, or maybe a mystery story, or a supernatural horror story. There are all of these elements in Fellside, but spiritually it’s much more elevated. As an example of one of those standard fictional genres, Carey could have ended this book 60 pages earlier than he did – & I would happily have given it four stars & it could have had an HEA epilogue as well. When I heard where Jessica stood up in the appeals court after the verdict to make a personal statement & I sensed the direction the book was taking, I wanted to stop the car & scream ‘Jess, Don’t do it!’ But of course she had to do it. This is a story of redemption. Now that we’ve been redeemed, what do we do about it? We don’t want anything bad to happen to anybody. But when it does, we want to be there. So we ask to be posted back to the front line, to the trauma unit, to the mission outpost, to the entrance to the dark cave concealing the downward path leading straight to . . . . As long as there’s unfinished business to take care of, we don’t leave anyone behind. In this book M. R. Carey chooses to have his hero Jess go for full-blown tragedy: unnecessary, excessive, cruel, but also inevitable & right – & very beautiful