Newest Review: ... 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 su... more
Could Sert ever become a reality?
The Penal Colony - Richard Herley
Member Name: chrisandmark
The Penal Colony - Richard Herley
Advantages: Exciting, a good main character, interesting
Disadvantages: Some uncomfortable moments
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.
Summary: Following the tragic journey of an innocent man sent to a penal colony - and left to rot