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Monday, 22 June 2015

‘Prison Noir’ edited by Joyce Carol Oates

Published by Turnaround,
30 October 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-6177-5239-1

This is an anthology of short stories focused on the experience of prisoners in U.S. jails. With an introduction by the editor, I learned for the first time the scale of the U.S. justice system - the U.S. locks up nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, despite accounting for just 5% of the world population. That means 2.2 million individuals in American prisons at any one time.

Against that background it's no wonder that the underlying themes threaded through many of the short stories in the anthology are of despair, loneliness and the challenges of living in an overcrowded, heavily controlled environment. In all the narratives, the day-to-day reality of life behind bars is described in a casual, normalised way. There is no emphasis on the lack of privacy or prevalence of violence, for example. These are presented by every author without exception as unremarkable, a given, a part of prison life. Far from being glossed over, it is more that they are simply part of the background fabric of life in prison.

A few of the authors are worth particular mention. In Shuffle, Christopher M Stephen subtly and sensitively explores the impact of solitary confinement on mental health, while Foxhole by BM Dolarman navigates the relationships between prisoners in an honest, unstylised manner that rings all the truer for it and makes his tragic conclusion that someday he'll end up on death row, all the more upsetting. In A Message in the Breath of Allah, there is a sense of poetic justice as the juxtaposition of Ali F Sareini's protagonist, Ali's faith in Allah and his contrary behaviour, seems to bring about his own demise. The strength of his faith also creates a sense of lack of choice, another theme that is woven throughout the anthology, perhaps particularly true of Milk and Tea by Linda Michelle Marquardt, whose unnamed heroine, a woman abused by her husband who finds herself in jail for a crime passionel.

To say I enjoyed this anthology would be misrepresenting the experience. Better would be to say that I couldn't put it down. Some characters were naturally more sympathetic than others, but the desolation of their experiences, equal in the eyes of the law, was moving. For an eye-opening read that will have you questioning the role incarceration plays in the justice system, through the words of those who have experienced it first-hand, you couldn't do better than this.
Reviewer: Joanna Kennedy

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Book Award. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national best sellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Falls. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and is the editor of New Jersey Noir.

Joanna Kennedy studied French and German at university. She works in the aerospace industry and is a chartered marketer in the UK. She describes herself as a voracious reader, enjoying genres as varied as crime thrillers, historical fiction and autobiographies. Joanna lives in London. She is the daughter of crime thriller writer Leigh Russell.

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