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Pickle Me This

November 13, 2017

The Prisoner and the Chaplain, by Michelle Berry

An interesting thing was that I started reading Michelle Berry’s novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain, on the night the clocks went back, which meant I ended up reading most of it on a day with an extra hour in it. The extra hour significant in light of the novel’s treatment of time, counting down the final twelve hours of a man’s life before his execution. Even for those of us for whom the future is not so limited, a twenty-five-hour day serves to underline how much every hour matters. And such a day is useful too, particularly when one is reading a novel as difficult to put down as this one is.

The novel begins as part philosophy—a treatise on faith, belief, on the nature of self—and part bildungsroman. There are two men in a room, a prisoner who has committed a heinous crime and the prison chaplain tasked with being with the prisoner in his final hours. The chaplain is young, inexperienced. He’s only there at all because his mentor has become ill and no one else can do it. And the chaplain wonders if even he can do it, if he’s up to the task, considering his inexperience and also the violence in his own past. What will these hours make of him?

The prisoner though, he just wants to talk. To tell the story of how he got from there to here, and he begins with his childhood, his mother’s abandonment, his brother’s violence, his father’s alcoholism, his sister’s descent into addiction. Petty thievery leads to larger crimes, one thing leading to another, this story told in chapters interspersed with those set in the present, which is ever encroaching upon their limited future. And here the chaplain reflects on his own violence, the events leading up to it. How is he different from this man before him, the chaplain wonders? Why is this man and not another the one who deserve to die?

It’s as intense as you’d expect, this story, the intensity growing stronger as the hours count down, as the prisoner gets closer and closer to revealing his crime. I read this novel right after Alison Pick’s Strangers With The Same Dream, which was similarly intense and had overlapping thematic concerns (certainty being one of them) and on Sunday night I had such a troubled sleep, and the next book I chose from my shelf after that would have to be a slim little volume called Calm Things. But still, it is a testament to the novel and a mark of its success that it’s just so unsettling. It’s not every book that creeps into your head like that, gets right into your dreams.

By its conclusion the novel has also become a thriller, and it’s here one sees the connections between The Prisoner and the Chaplain and Berry’s previous novel, Interference, which was similarly genre-blurring and feature and underlying current of violence, a sinister edge. Contributing to the unease of The Prisoner and the Chaplain is that the prisoner’s story never quite lines up with the one the chaplain knows is on the official record, although he’d been warned about this by the warden. That the prisoner would try to get under his skin, to get him onside. And is this what has happened when the hour for the execution is imminent and the chaplain is quite sure the prisoner didn’t actually commit the crime he’s being punished for? Or is this really the case of an innocent man who’s about to die?

The novel’s momentum starts strong and just keeps going and going, and then the ending packs a wallop. Make sure you set aside a good block hours before you start this book, because you’ll be needing every one of them.

2 thoughts on “The Prisoner and the Chaplain, by Michelle Berry”

  1. Dammit. There’s another book I’m off to buy! (I bought Dazzle Patterns after reading what you had to say about it.)

    1. Kerry says:

      I love this! Hope you enjoy them both.

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