I was kindly provided with a free copy of this novel for review purposes by the publishers.
I'm going to admit straight away that what drew me to this novel was the comparison that has been made to the US prison drama 'Oz', which happens to be one of the most addictive and compelling TV shows I have ever watched. The idea of a novel set in a prison, following the lives of two prison workers really appealed to me and I was excited to give it a go. I love to try something new and this was something I'd never come across in a book before.
30-something teacher Drew Daniels is frantically trying to escape her life and finds the solution she's looking for in moving back in with her parents and starting a new job at the local prison teaching Special Ed classes. It's as far from her usual life of teaching at an expensive private school as she can manage and she thinks it could be the medicine she needs to help her forget her troubles. Drew has just re-entered the world of the singleton after living the cosy, settled life with long-term partner Ben. We don't really know what happened with the relationship but we do know it ended badly. Badly enough that she would want to return to the scene of her adolescent years.
On her first day at Lakeside Correctional, Drew meets Joe, a Corrections Officer ten years her junior but just attractive enough that it stops her from caring about the age gap. She also bumps into Graham, an old friend from High School who is now a Social Worker at Lakeside and has found himself wheelchair-bound after an RTA left him paralysed from the waist down.
What follows is your typical girl meets guy, girl falls for guy while another guy falls for her story arc. Now, I don't usually read these kind of novels, and there was a point about half way in to the novel where I was tempted to put it aside and stop reading - not because the novel itself was bad but because it just wasn't turning out to be my kind of thing. However, the mystery of how Drew's relationship with Ben ended kept me reading. Hints had been dropped and I was anticipating some dirty secret was about to come out in the wash. And I wasn't disappointed. And I'm really glad that I kept reading because at about the 3/4 way mark, I started to really enjoy this novel. The characters began to come into their own, the plot spun off in a few thought-provoking angles and I wanted to keep reading.
The format of the novel took a little getting used to. It was told in chapters that alternated from Graham's first person narration and a third person perspective of Drew's experience. While I would usually find myself wanting to read more of the female character's point of view, I actually found myself enjoying Graham's chapters more than Drew's. I loved Graham's voice, his sarcasm and pessimistic world view. I really felt as though I was getting inside his head, that I could identify with his experiences, while I felt as though I was watching Drew from a distance which made it hard to connect with her.
The subject matter of the novel was quite dark, which is a personal favourite of mine when it comes to choosing reading material, and yet it had an uplifting angle to it. Graham, especially brought humour to the darkness and stopped the novel becoming merely a diatribe against the American penal system. I enjoyed the way Jess Riley brought attention to the flaws of the Prison system - the overcrowding, the chaos, the risk for the prison workers. And the way she did it without preaching. We got to see the flaws and the problems with our own eyes rather than simply be told about them.
This was a thought-provoking read that I'm glad I stuck with. At some point in the future, I will probably return to it and read it again with fresh eyes, knowing that it is a book I am going to enjoy. I found the pop culture references quirky and kind of fun - when a fictional character compares their situation to one of your favourite films (Freedom Writers) it's bound to make you smile.
I'd recommend this book for anybody who likes quirky humour, a bit of darkness and a story firmly rooted in reality. I'll definitely be checking out some of Jess Riley's earlier novels.