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Having a Kindle (well, until very recently the Kindle iPad app) I've discovered lots of new books and authors that I wouldn't necessarily have chosen to read in paperback format, basically because you have to pay for those and obscure works are very often free from the Kindle Store. Which is why I ended up with The Penal Colony by Richard Herley, a book I didn't think I'd enjoy but actually loved from start to finish.
In a nutshell, England has become so lawless that the government has had to set up Penal Colonies - whole (small) islands taken over by the prison service and used for murderers, rapists and terrorists. Sert is located off the coast of Cornwall and is the new home of Anthony Routledge, a man convicted of the rape and murder of a young woman he met on the train home from work - early on we hear the (large amount of) circumstantial evidence against him, we also hear that he's innocent of the crime and that he has a wife and child back on the mainland.
The thing about Sert is that there are no guards or authoritarian figures of any type on the island. Every second Tuesday a prison helicopter arrives with (woefully inadequate) supplies for the prisoners, letters from home and usually a drugged and stretchered convict ready to start his new 'life' on Sert. This lack of authority means the men are free to do as they please; a village has sprung up, fenced off and patrolled by men with machetes to keep out other prisoners who were deemed unfit to enter the village. These 'outsiders' live in poverty on other parts of the island, they don't get their share from the helicopter drops and their years without women has created an 'epidemic' of homosexuality and male rape - in turn the AIDS and HVC viruses are running rife amongsts these outcasts, something the infinitely more civilised villagers want to keep out of their habitat.
I really enjoyed this book, much more than I thought I would actually given the subject matter. I struggled to comprehend some aspects of the story but in the main it all seemed to make sense, at first I was horrified that such a place as Sert existed but after debating the issue with my partner we came to the conclusion that this type of colony may well have a place in our future as we run out of prison space. Routledge is a fantastic character; it's pushed into our consciousness repeatedly that this man is innocent, to find yourself with a life sentence on a small island and absolutely no chance of release must be horrific for anyone but I almost cried for this guy whose biggest crime had been giving a pretty young woman his newspaper.
This is an extremely absorbing read, for the first time in months I found myself sitting awake at night to read 'just a few more pages'. The completely male cast of characters took a bit of getting used to, although the fact that on the island the men call one another by their surnames made it a bit easier for me to remember who was who. I felt Routledge, upon his eventual admittance into the village, slotted in just a little bit too easily for it to be entirely realistic and he also went too quickly from being a nervous panicking wreck to a confident member of Sert society. I suppose the author has shortened the fitting in experience to keep down dull everyday page numbers, but I felt something was lost from the story once Routledge lost his 'newbie' image - within five minutes of becoming a villager he'd worked out the system of hierarchy and status etiquette, it was just too speedily done.
The homosexuality aspect was more raw outside the village, this was an aspect that to me didn't make a whole lot of sense. Sert as a penal colony had been in existence for six years, yet this relatively short period of time without women was enough to 'turn' previously straight men gay - not just gay either but willing and excitable about raping other men. Six years? Men who had previously been married, men who outside of Sert would probably have detested homosexual rapists? It just made the story seem a bit farfetched and overly sensational. Obviously some of these men would have been homosexual before Sert, but these are the ones portrayed as being in semi-stable gay relationships on the island - watching the was-straight-now-gay contingent fighting over who was going to rape the 'new meat' made me feel physically sick and I feel that particular scene was added for shock purposes.
Life in the village was well portrayed; the men all had a role to play and reading about the way they fitted into daily life was interesting and well described. I thought it was fascinating how they rigged up labour saving devices and provided themselves with home comforts that the prison service would never have sanctioned, the author went to pains to explain (in an interesting way) how each device was created which helped the story sound more real than if he'd just made the reader take his word for how the villagers ended up with electric lights and crossbows!
Towards the end of the story Routledge becomes crucial in a plot by the villagers; again I felt he was pulled into the bosom of the family a bit too quickly but in this case I'm glad as his naivety (in relation to the longer serving prisoners) really helped to create an exciting and unsure atmosphere. I didn't find any of the other characters particularly noticeable, even though some of them are featured in-depth at certain points within the novel; the village 'Father' turned out to be far more likeable than I first thought, one of the outsiders was a well rounded religious nut bad-guy and the older triple-murderer Routledge was originally housed with is characterised exceptionally well - this man, King, in particular having a surprisingly sad backstory which softened me towards him despite the fact that one of his victims was a child.
Care was taken by the author to ensure that Routledge was completely the central character within The Penal Colony; it's strange as he is actually quite a dull and nondescript character, but the totally alien surroundings added weight to his personality and attitudes. Watching him interact with the other prisoners was a realistic mix of fascinating and tedious, he seemed to try too hard to ingratiate himself to begin with and this made for awkward encounters and (at times) a bit of a cringeworthy read. Actually now I think about it there's very little personal interaction at all in the book; conversations are kept to a minimum between the men, showing I think the bleakness and utter loneliness of the situation they find themselves in.
All in all I think The Penal Colony is a fantastic story, almost a lesson in how far our society can fall - and then the horrific consequence of having too few prison places for the men (and women) who deserve to lose their liberty. It's a kind of social experiment and although these were obviously fictional characters I felt a huge degree of sympathy for these men; to lose not only your basic human rights must be a hard cross to bear, to be shoved into the kind of environment where the authorities refuse to come and even recover your dead body is inhuman.
You don't need a strong stomach to read this, the violence and rape is kept threateningly close to the surface but not allowed to bubble over in a salacious way. In fact the only violent aspect that is truly 'in yer face' occurs early on in the novel when Routledge is still a newcomer and spending time outside the village, the latter part of the book being taken up more with threats of violence and the worry of what would happen if the numerous outsiders ever decided to pool their manpower and breach the walls of the village.
If you fancy reading this hard hitting tale of how badly people can be treated (the fact that they are murderous criminals notwithstanding) the Kindle version is still free to download, paperback copies can be found for around a fiver - and if you fancy it in hardback you're looking at paying a whopping £60 from the Amazon Marketplace.
The Penal Colony by Richard Herley has recently been available as a free download on Kindle, and from the synopsis given it sounded like it would be a reasonable read for a freebie. Although published in the late 1980s, I hadn't heard of it before, and I assumed it was written more recently.
The Penal Colony is about a man named Tony Routledge who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. Set in the late 1990s, so the near future for reads in 1987, prisons are now on islands offshore, where convicts are left to fend for themselves with weekly helicopter drops of supplies. Routledge is sent to Sert, where an organised and civilised community exists in the Village, but the island is also populated with groups of Outsiders, who want access to the supply drops controlled by the Village.
The first thing to note about reading The Penal Colony today is that, in general terms, it is not very dated. There are some small elements which show it is not new, and some attitudes which could date it, but the main theme of these offshore prison camps and prison overcrowding is one which is still very relevant today. I didn't realise the age of the book until Routledge mentions his year of birth and age, which pointed to the present of the novel being around 1998.
The story of The Penal Colony is quite predictable, but still exciting. There is plenty of action as Routledge has to survive on his own before being allowed to join the Village. We also have sections from the Outsiders side of the story, so we learn more about them.
In general and on the surface, The Penal Colony is a good read with a relevant theme of the future of prisons. However, not long after Routledge arrived on the island I began to feel uneasy about a particular attitude or stance of the author - his treatment of homosexuality. The majority of the Outsiders are homosexual, while it is banned in the Village due to a fear of AIDS. However, the homosexuality of the Outsiders is seen as disgusting and something to fear - it is portrayed as synonymous with rape and orgies. Even the only mention in the novel of fully consensual sex, which appears to be within the bounds of a loving relationship, is described as "depraved".
Perhaps the author is using homosexuality as a tool to illustrate the differences between the Village and the Outsiders, which could then lead to the possibility of the island being an allegory for society as a whole, but quite frankly it left me feeling very uneasy. Herley's treatment of homosexuality cam across as homophobic, and I did not like it. It really let down an otherwise good book.
The Penal Colony has a good story, a good concept and a valid theme, but the author's use of homosexuality as something to be feared and reviled left me feeling uneasy about the whole novel. Perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick, but I would say to be prepared for this if you decide to read the novel.
I'm struggling with my star rating on this - it could be a really enjoyable and exciting book, but that attitude to homosexuality really lets it down, and is the one thing about the book which has stuck in my mind. Maybe 2 stars is a bit harsh but I don't think it deserves 3 stars.
I've discovered one of the great benefits of owning a Kindle is that there are lots of free books available at the Amazon Kindle Store offering a great opportunity to read previously undiscovered books. For me, one such book is The Penal Colony a futuristic thriller written by Richard Herley, an author I'd never come across before.
Anthony Routledge has been charged with a crime he didn't commit and sentenced to life in a penal colony set up on Sert, a small island off the Cornish coast. There are no cells and no prison guards. Instead the prisoners are landed by helicopter along with the monthly supplies and left to their own devices only monitored via satellite. In order to endure this brutal environment, Routledge has to forget his previous life and learn how to survive under this harsh regime to which he has been condemned and from which there is no escape. Or is there?
Quite frankly, I wasn't expecting great things from this book and my reasons for choosing it were largely based on the fact it was free from the Kindle Store. I'd never heard of Richard Herley before and although the book had received good ratings from people who'd read it, I always take those ratings with a pinch of salt. I've been suckered into buying books from Amazon before on the strength of other readers' recommendations and subsequently been disappointed. This certainly wasn't the case with this book, however, as it was a totally gripping read.
This book was originally published in 1987 and the reader must first overlook the fact that the futuristic date has come and gone. As yet we haven't any penal colonies along the lines of this one on Sert but given the current problems with prison overcrowding, it's possibly only a matter of time. To my mind, it certainly isn't beyond the bounds of credibility.
The story begins by dropping the reader straight into the action without any prologue to explain the events which have led up to Anthony Routledge being dropped on Sert but as the first few chapters unfold, his back story is covered sufficiently to let the reader know that he's an innocent man who finds himself plunged into this nightmare situation. This allows the reader to discover along with Anthony how the prisoners have organised themselves into two factions, The Village and The Outsiders, but initially it's unclear which group is to be trusted as Routledge is evicted from The Village and told to fend for himself for the following six days, after which he may return at a specified time if he chooses. It doesn't take Tony long to discover that being part of The Village is vastly preferable to being an Outsider.
This is an all male colony and there are certain members who regard the 'new meat' as fair game in every respect, if you get my meaning. Poor Routledge is captured by the Outsiders on his first day and held captive in the Town pending being auctioned to the highest bidder but despite having been a quantity surveyor in his former life so not the brawniest of men, he's an intelligent man who uses his brains to effect his escape. Reflecting on his situation, it doesn't take Routledge long to realise there were huge gaps in his formal education, none of which has prepared him for life on Sert. I found one particular sentence very prophetic. The words may have been written in 1987 but they seem very relevant in today's uncertain times.
"Instead of teaching him the dates of distant battles they would have done better to prepare him for this, for the new Dark Ages, for a Britain wallowing out of control."
Although he manages to escape from the Town, Routledge's problem then is to avoid recapture in the intervening five days, not easy on a tiny island, and make it back to the Village and a more organised society. Once in the Village, under the charismatic leadership of Franks, known as 'the Father', Routledge discovers that escape may not be just a pipe dream after all.
Although the story centres around Anthony Routledge, the narrative is written in the third person which allows plenty of opportunity to get into the minds of the other characters, both residents of the Village and the Outsiders. The men on Sert have all been placed into Category Z, having been found guilty of committing heinous crimes. There are some characters who are guilty of the crimes for which they were sentenced and who are truly horrendous people totally beyond redemption and others who may well have committed crimes but who are innately decent human beings nevertheless and there are those such as Routledge who have been committed to this living Hell on suspect evidence provided by a corrupt police force. The third person narrative works exceptionally well here, allowing this world to be viewed from all perspectives although this sometimes makes for quite uncomfortable reading.
I was amazed how much I enjoyed this book, especially as it really isn't my usual reading choice but after only a few pages, I was totally immersed in this violent and frightening world where men have been pared down to their absolute basic natures and there's little to separate them from animals and I felt that Routledge reacted to the situations he encountered in a very realistic manner, very much as someone would who'd been condemned to live forever in such a dreadful place and I was firmly in his corner right from the beginning.
This is a superbly written and tautly plotted futuristic thriller which pulls the reader right into the action and is peopled with well rounded and believable characters. If I have any criticism it's that some of the references, such as the bombing of Knightsbridge Barracks, may date the story somewhat but only for older readers who remember such events from the seventies and eighties. Despite this very minor niggle, I can't award this anything less than five stars. This is the tale of an ordinary man who discovers in this somewhat dystopian world that he is far more resourceful than he ever imagined. It was an absolutely riveting story.
The plot setting may be futuristic but it never strays into the realms of fantasy and it certainly doesn't prevent this story from being a thought provoking and somewhat frightening glimpse into what might be our tomorrow.
Penal Colony is currently available from Amazon in paperback from about £1.50 plus postage or as a free download for Kindle. Ownership of a Kindle isn't necessary to read the book in this format as there is software available to download for free from Amazon which allows Kindle files to be read on a computer.
PS. All the time I was reading this story I kept thinking what a great film it would make and I've since discovered that it was, in fact, turned into a movie released in 1994, No Escape, starring Ray Liotta. I'm guessing the movie will have been given the Hollywood treatment and the action transposed to America with Routledge having been turned into a far more heroic figure than in the book.