Book Review: Fellside, M.R. Carey (2016)

April 8th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato


three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Jess Moulton wakes up in a hospital bed with few memories of the previous eight months. A heroin addict, she and her boyfriend John Street shot up in her flat; when a fire broke out later that night (started, according to the police, by Jess herself), John was able to escape with third degree burns on his hands and arms, but Jess wasn’t so lucky. Passed out cold, the fire melted half her face before first responders pulled her from the inferno. Alex Beech, the little boy who lived in the upstairs apartment, wasn’t so lucky; left home alone that night by his parents, Alex died of smoke inhalation.

After multiple skin grafts and extensive cosmetic surgery to repair her face, Jess is swiftly tried and convicted of murder. The Crown insists that Jess set the fire on purpose, to kill John and herself; the fact that someone else died instead does not manslaughter make. Left with no memories of the event – and a pretty low opinion of herself, college dropout and relapsed “junkie” – Jess does little to assist in her own defense. After the verdict comes down, she’s sent to Fellside, a women’s prison near the Yorkshire Moors. Convinced that she is indeed a “murderess,” Jess tries to kill herself by the only means at her disposal – a hunger strike.

Just as she’s on the precipice, Jess is visited by the ghost of Alex Beech – who enlists her help in finding the real killer. Fellside is fraught with danger: a drug smuggling ring led by Harriet Grace of “State of Grace” fame; corrupt wardens; incompetent management; damaged women with little left to lose – yet the greatest risk lies in that other world, the spirit world inhabited by dreamers and ghosts. A world that Jess has been able to traverse since she was a child.

Spooky, right?

So here’s the deal: I read and loved The Girl with All the Gifts. It was easily one of my favorites of 2015. And I nearly fell out of my seat when I first spotted the early copies of Fellside, so busy was I making grabby hands at my computer screen. (The happy dance didn’t help either.) Early reviewers cautioned that Fellside was drastically different from THAT OTHER BOOK, which didn’t alarm me at all: why shouldn’t it be? Science fiction might be my first love, but supernatural horror is well within my wheelhouse. That, and I find that genre tends to fall away when the writing’s shiny enough. My expectations were sky-high.

While the idea behind the story is solid, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. At nearly 500 pages, the story feels bloated and occasionally repetitive, with several weird subplots that seem to go nowhere. For example, Paul Levine’s skeevy crush on Jess – which he freely admits is based on his own shit, that he’s projecting onto her. But somehow his attraction to her rebuilt face makes a cosmic sort of sense because he used to be a cutter? Say what now?

Carey’s writing isn’t quite up to par with that in The Girl with All the Gifts, or at least not as I remember it. More than once I caught myself in an exaggerated eye roll thanks to a cheesy line, and one especially stupid move by the MC nearly had me throwing my Kindle across the room towards the end of the story. None of the characters are especially likable, or even relateable; and while the former need not be a book’s death knell (see, e.g., Gone Girl, where everyone is THE WORST), you’ve got to make them at least interesting or all bets are off. But Jess has all the personality of a lightly salted boiled potato. It’s never a good sign when you find yourself shrugging over a character’s death (plural, in this case).

That said, the story is fairly entertaining and (mostly) moves along at a steady clip. It wasn’t until the midway point that I found my attention wandering, and I only considered DNF’ing the book around 80%, when Someone Did Something Unforgivably Stupid. Jess’s slow death by starvation was, for me, a high point in the story. Carey does a perfectly horrifying job of detailing what this might look like – and it’s much more complicated and gruesome than merely wasting away. (Think: a fungal infection rotting through your mouth. Ew!)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Jess Moulson and her boyfriend John Street are heroin addicts; John sometimes hit her. When a fire consumed their flat, John suffered third degree burns on his hands and forearms, which required multiple surgeries and skin grafts. Meanwhile, half of Jess’s face was melted off, requiring eight months’ worth of surgeries. When Jess is convicted of murder (of her upstairs neighbor, a kid named Alex Beech), Jess decides to commit suicide by refusing food. She comes very close to dying before she’s visited by Alex’s ghost and forced to reconsider.

Jess’s mother died of cancer and her Aunt Brenda is disabled from multiple herniated discs. Jess’s father Barry was an alcoholic.

Patience DiMarta, a nurse at Fellside, is half Portuguese, half West African (“but her accent was broad Yorkshire”).

Naseem “Naz” Suresh was born in the UK, but her parents were from Uttar Pradesh – a state in Northern India. Her family forced her into prostitution to pay off her uncle’s debts, which is how she wound up in prison. Lizzie Earnshaw fell in love with her – even though, up until that point, she’d identified as straight. (She’s been married with kids on the outside.)

Po Royal and Kaleesha the librarian are another couple at Fellside.

Dr. Salazar’s wife Leah died from cancer. He was forced to steal pain medication from Fellside’s infirmary because insurance wouldn’t cover everything she needed. Sally and Leah are/were both Jewish.

Paul Levine was a self-harmer (cutter) in college.

When she was a kid, a facial cleft made Harriet Grace a favorite target of bullies.

Hannah Passmore tries to kill herself by biting into her own wrists.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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