A boy dies in a unit fire set by a drug addict – or did he?

Jess Moulson, under the influence of drugs, deliberately sets fire to her unit; it leaves her with horrendous burns and

Jess Moulson, under the influence of drugs, deliberately sets fire to her unit; it leaves her with horrendous burns and injures her also heroin-addicted boyfriend. A neighbour, 10-year-old Alex Beech, allegedly dies of smoke inhalation in the resultant blaze. Under a revision to English law, Jess finds herself facing a charge of murder rather than manslaughter.

The MR Carey novel Fellside is an interesting and intriguing story about a crime, its aftermath, the resultant trial – delayed while Jess receives corrective surgery and grafts for her wounds – her hunger strike and eventual recovery. The story falls more or less into the general category of psycho-thriller, although it should be noted it is different in style to any I have previously read, often delving into the surreal.

Jess is found guilty of the murder and sentenced to Fellside Correctional Facility for Women, a notorious prison on the edge of the North York Moors and run by a private security company. Only one person in the whole world has ever shown any consideration towards Jess, her Aunt Brenda. To Jess, she is the nearest anyone ever came to being a mother and yet, from prison, she writes a letter to her aunt telling her not to make contact.

Disgusted at causing the death of a boy who’d turned to her for help, Jess refuses her solicitor’s plan to appeal and makes the decision to end her life by hunger strike, a wish the authorities must comply with. As the weeks go by in the jail’s infirmary, becoming weaker because she exists only on drugs and water, she begins to fantasise. Drifting off into a deep blackness, she is saved, brought back by Alex. The boy talks to her and convinces her to end her hunger strike.

The trigger is Alex’s explanation that he did not die in the fire. He died before it was set.

The path Jess must steer through Fellside is fraught with peril. Not least of her concerns is Harriet Grace, the inmate who runs this part of the prison along with a crooked guard, Dennis ‘The Devil’ Devlin, who is also her lover.  Grace is a psychopath, ready and willing to deliver summary justice to anyone who steps outside the boundaries she has set for her acolytes. For Jess to manage the task of proving the truth behind Alex’s death, she has to run the gauntlet of a prison in which she is initially one against the many.

I am not a superstitious person, so had to overcome much personal disbelief in the ghost-like sequences when Jess makes her way through the dreams of others. On the other hand, Carey’s descriptive ability helps to maintain the reader’s interest. Some of his descriptions of drug-induced stress are graphic:

When this dose (of incorrectly administered medication) hit her system, it felt at first like the familiar welcoming descent, and Jess surrendered to it in much the same way she’d once surrendered to the saccharine sting of heroin. But this time was different. She sank down with jolts and jars, as though she were pushing her way through a crowd – and then, although she didn’t stop falling, something else was falling through her, red-hot and razor-tipped.

As I mentioned, it is different. In the end, despite an acceptable answer for Alex, I felt there were too many aspects not entirely satisfactorily explained. Not least of these is a forensics issue early in the story, the premise on which it devolves: Medical evidence would have shown whether the boy died of smoke inhaled from the fire or from another cause.

Book clubs and discussion groups would have a field day with this, I am sure.

Fellside by MR Carey is available now from Dymocks.

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