#QUICKFIC 09/11/2018: The Winner

Runner Up: James A

Walled Garden

Sat in the dark, dank shadow of the garden’s wall, Tom pressed his ear against its damp, cold face.  He listened to the sounds beyond, imagined the actions that made them, wondered how it was possible to do likewise.

Tom did not understand summer.  He knew about it, saw people getting excited about it, don shorts, go outside, listen to their summer soundtracks, cook meat and drink outside… while he remained outside that walled garden, listening, imagining.  

He thought of it as a music service he couldn’t afford, and so could only listen to snippets of songs.  Or film teasers that were never replaced by trailers, let alone the full feature. He knew these things but did not know them.

In his heart and mind, Tom knew he would sit there always.  The darkness within the wall would confirm his insecurities and keep him there, listening, waiting for the winter when he would be alone again, the revellers’ noise gone until the sun returned. 

Jane would often sit and look across the park, watching the lovers walk by, the dogs chase balls, the children running and playing… and a curious man across the way would always catch her eye.  Always sat alone, he would stare as if unseeing, as if there were a wall between him and everyone else.

If she had more confidence, perhaps she would have gone to talk to him.  She guessed everyone had their own walls they would not cross; and certainly she knew her own.

Runner Up: Simon Yates

Home

“I’ve got to get home.” Peggy said. “He’s waiting for me.”

“Don’t go.” I said.

She laughed and it broke my heart. A laugh shouldn’t carry that weight of misery.

“Don’t laugh.” I said. “You can stay with me.”

“And your parents will be OK with that? They’ll let me sleep in your room?”

I looked away. I didn’t want to say the word that was forcing its way up into my mouth. I’d said it once and she hadn’t spoken to me for a week.

“It’s not his fault.” She said. “It’s the whiskey.”

“He needs help.”

“I’m helping him.” She hugged her schoolbooks tighter and clenched her jaw even harder, daring me to argue.

“Professional help.”

It was too close to the word that could never be said. She whirled away, her ponytail whipping after her, and strode along the pavement.

“Peggy! Don’t.” I called. “Please?”

She didn’t listen. Every step took her further from me in every way. I just watched, as usually useless as always. She didn’t look back.

That night I didn’t sleep. Every time the wind blustered or the bed creaked, I imagined the worst. I played scenarios through my head where I was always the hero, the rescuer, the lover. But I was fourteen. My bedroom stayed safe no matter what I imagined. So different to Peggy’s.

The next morning Peggy still wasn’t speaking to me.

Winner: Daniela Azzopardi

Homecoming

“We should head back. Don’t wanna get lynched.”

“Daft boy,” Old Nate barked, fighting with the gear stick. “They’ll all be giddy to see you.”

“I doubt that.” Matthias clutched his knapsack. “On my last visit I sent e’eryone to the ‘backwater hell’ from where they had spawned.”

Old Nate wiped the sweat from his brow with a chequered handkerchief as Matthias looked out of the truck at the familiar landscape.

He missed it; the countryside, childhood friends, grumpy grandparents. Being that close to home had made him tumble to the nearest train station after his concert was done, forgetting the sourness which had ended his last visit.

As the train got closer to his destination, memories had rushed back with astronomical force. Before he could catch another train out of there, Nate accosted him, recognizing the child Matthias used to be, and dragged him to his truck, insisting on giving him a ride into town.

A soft summer breeze blew as they got to the main square and Nate’s truck ground to a halt. Matthias’ smiling face greeted them from a canvas poster almost as tall as the council house first floor.

Castledale – Home of Melodious Matthias

“Got ‘er up in time for the concert.”

“Concert…”

“You’re a downright talent, Matt. Bit stubborn, but you’ll do great.”

Matthias’ voice faltered. “Does Sam think so too?”

Nate scoffed. “Sam? Who do think drew that darned poster?”

He turned to light his pipe, allowing Matthias some privacy with his emotions.

Thank you for playing along with the odd turn this week’s prompt took! Congratulations to James, Simon and Daniela, and thank you to everyone that sent a piece in. Keep them coming!

Have a wonderful, music filled weekend and we’ll see you again at 9:50 am next Friday.

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 09/11/2018

Happy Friday! Welcome back to Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Quick fire refresher:

One prompt. One 250 word story from you. Send it in the body of an email (including title and word count) by 2:50 pm today to academy@faber.co.uk. You might win these books: 

"The Book of Chocolate Saints" by Jeet Thayil and "In My Minds Eye: A Thought Diary" by Jan Morris -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

The days are getting shorter, it’s dark and cold and everyone is reaching for the tissues, but not in the Academy office! We’re bringing back that summer feeling and switching  things up a little. This week your prompt is not a picture, or a first line, or even an extract. It’s a playlist full of cheerful songs designed to make you think of warmer, golden days gone by:

Have a listen, get inspired and see what words you can produce.

One more programming note before we go though. Thanks to copyright, we can’t re-print any of the lyrics to these wonderful songs. Please don’t include them in your story, as that means it can’t go up on the website and that means you won’t win.

Until 3:30 pm! 

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

#QUICKFIC 02/11/2018

Remember remember, the 2nd November, when Jade-Louisa gave you all a new prompt…Yes, fresh off the heels of Halloween, we’ve got another themed edition of our #QUICKFIC flash fiction competition! This one is Bonfire Night themed. Or as I like to call it, Celebrating the Time a Crime was Narrowly Averted with Fire and Mayhem Night themed! The first is catchier, I’ll grant you that.

But before we get go to it, a rules refresher:

  • Use the prompt below to write a story of 250 words or less.
  • Pop the story into the body of an email, including the title and the word count, and send it to academy@faber.co.uk. Make sure it’s in the body of the email, not as a separate attached document!
  • Do all that by 2:50 pm 3 pm today

And if you do, you’re in with a shot of winning these criminally good books:

"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D.James, "Fateful Mornings" by Tom Bouman and "Collusion" by Luke Harding -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

And with that, here is your prompt: 

A shot of what we can assume is the very top of a bonfire set against a pitch black sky. The fire is spitting gold and orange sparks across the sky like a firework. The flame is so bright it lights up the bottom half of the image in a warm golden glow. -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Bye until 3:30 pm! 

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

 

#QUICKFIC 02/11/2018: The Winner

A shot of what we can assume is the very top of a bonfire set against a pitch black sky. The fire is spitting gold and orange sparks across the sky like a firework. The flame is so bright it lights up the bottom half of the image in a warm golden glow. -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Runner Up: Susannah O’Brien

Cheese Slices and Car Parks

There were fireworks the first day she met him, although it’s an awful cliché to say so. Both students, they were working at the big Tesco in town. He was meant to be cutting cheese slices behind the Deli counter, and she was normally on Bakery, but that day, their respective supervisors sent them both to help with Seasonal. So there they met, selling Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles to middle-aged men who had over-promised their kids.

“Make sure to check for I.D., and give them this safety leaflet,” Joe, Deputy Manager (Events), said to them.

There was a brisk trade and although neither of them knew the first thing about fire safety, punters were only to happy to ask for their advice, hand over the cash and walk off with Rockets and Sparklers in one hand and Joe’s leaflet in the other.

She was working the late shift, but he’d been in since breakfast. At 6pm, her Long Break and his Finish collided in the car park. They stood together, holding mugs of tea from the Staff Room and watched as the sky became a shriek of purple swirls and green stars from the municipal show down the road.

“Remember, remember, the 5thof November,” she whispered as he kissed her there in the car park.

“We’ll never forget our anniversary,” he said, putting his hands into the pockets of her Tesco fleece and pulling her in.

It was just a shame that they had broken up by Christmas.

Runner Up: Mike Blakemore

Remember Remember

His faced burned but he held his position, too close for comfort but determined to savour this moment.

Eventually, his sister pulled him away, just as she had when the old man had been alive. This time her tug on his arm was gentle but many times she had grabbed him hard, trying to save him from himself.

His father had laughed then, just as he had when he had been the author of violence and no one had been able to stop him. Not the tiny children at his mercy and not their terrified mother.

His sister wasn’t laughing now and his own hysterical response sounded more like a cry of pain than anything resembling pleasure. But this would be closure; this would be the beginning of happier times.

Yes, it had been tasteless to dress the guy in his father’s clothes but he had never hesitated, vigorously screwing up pages of the newspaper the old man had hidden behind at breakfast and stuffing them into the moth-eaten suit. This was the uniform of respectability his father had worn to work each day, seating himself at the desk where he would proudly point towards a family photograph when colleagues asked after his kids.

The guy was all but burned now and there was just one act left to perform.

He tipped his father’s ashes into the orange flames; a second cremation because burning him once had not been enough.

Winner: Laura Riley

Penny For the Guy

It all happened so quickly — at least the beginning did. A spark of an idea I couldn’t quite shake.

The car was leaking diesel again. A sticky pool growing larger each day. I knew I couldn’t collect it, that would certainly arouse suspicion, but I could still use it. A dab here, a drip there, only enough to appear accidental of course. He’d been sniffling all week, perhaps he wouldn’t notice the smell of a blot or two on his trainers or the edge of his jeans.

He’d already decided that we’d attend the Bonfire party at the crappy pub down the road. On arrival, I saw no evidence of safety precautions. If I was lucky, this could work.

I couldn’t leave him. He knew that. We barely had enough combined, what life would I have alone. Alive, we both had share of an empty pot; but if one of us was to die, our life insurance would fill it right up.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen — but I never imagined that a small child, afraid of the sparkler a parent had clasped in their hand, would finish the job for me. Loosening their grip, they let the glowing stick fall beside my husband’s shoe. In an instant the gathered crowd froze as fire took its natural devastating form. It licked at the sides of my husband, until he was just an effigy of a man, his screams in harmony with the wailing Catherine Wheels above.

No firework display or bonfire could hold a (Roman) candle to you lovely #QUICKFIC writers. Many congratulations to Susannah, Mike and Laura — three different but wonderful spins on this week’s prompt picture. Much like how no two Catherine Wheels will spin the same, yet all look beautiful.

We’ll be back next week at 9:50 am with another prompt, minus my bad attempts at making fireworks based jokes.

Until then!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 26/10/2018: The Winner

Runner Up: Thea Oxbury

In-Between Time, or The Pumpkin Princess

The magazine had provided instructions: Pumpkin Perfection: A Fabulous Festive Face in Ten Easy Slices.

Alice had wanted to practice alone, master the technique before she sat down with the children, but there’d not been time. When was there ever?

Still, she’d made the initial incisions herself: stalk handled discs trepanned from each gourd’s pale crown. Then, her half-hearted attempt to convey the magazine’s primary instructions to Jessica and Rory: a single, crescent-shaped slash to map the smile, carefully placed, mirroring chevrons to plant a suggestion of laughing eyes.

Too late. Rory digs a fist into the pale hollow. Jessica grabs the potato knife, hazel eyes glinting keenly as its sturdy blade. Alice remembers the overalls she’d set aside, but forgotten to usher the pair into. And then a slew of realisations: tomorrow’s deadline for the committee’s report, her stepfather’s birthday (yesterday!), her overdue response to the neighbour’s planning application.

The boy licks sinewy pulp from his knuckles. (Raw pumpkin? Toxic?) The girl incants, knife gashing gaping sockets into a hollow, vegetable skull.

Samhain, remembers Alice, the in-between day, neither last year, this year, nor the next. Outside time itself. Souls roam and riot as they will.

Silently, she steps back from the table. Her children oblivious, she unlatches the garden gate, paces past the house, out, out, onto the windy road, towards the trees, the clatter and clamour, the raging in-between time, no time, the howling, boundless freedom of the celebration of All Souls. Alice walks and then runs

Runner Up: Thom Willis

The King’s Promise

The Pumpkin King was wrong.

He made the same speech every October, as his subjects grew ripely orange in mist-laid fields. He meant it to inspire them, to give them hope in their futures, to push them on to greater things. He spoke in good faith. He was wrong.

He told of transformation, of becoming. How the destiny of pumpkind was to be the jackolantern, how the fierce light would burn from all of them, how it would push the shadows back into their corners, how they were, for one night, the stars come to ground.

He told the stories humans tell, of headless horsemen with guardian lanterns, he told rousing jokes about the traditions of the season, of tricks played and treats given. He delighted the rows and ranks of his fellows. They saw how important they were, they felt unstoppable.

The Pumpkin King was wrong.

Stacked high in cardboard troughs, the harvested pumpkins sat and awaited their ascension. Days passed. The terror of those at the bottom of the pile became feverish as the first blooms of decay appeared at their stembases. This was not their calling, this was death. 

The day approached. Those pumpkins with healthier skin, whose roundness and orange glow was undeniable, were taken. This was the it, the King’s promise fulfilled! Only for the chosen few, they realised now. Only the elect.

And for the elect, for the most pieous, the lighted ones, what horrors now awaited them.

The Winner: Sarah Nash

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

The woman thinks this is fun. She thinks she’s in charge. They never learn do they?

Grownups.

Susie’s got a knife. A very sharp knife.  Makes it easier.

The volunteers are so sweet – doing their bit for the poor little orphans. Then going back to their comfy homes and forgetting all about us.

Not today.

They never ask how we became orphans. Who taught us everything we know. Taught us how to fend for ourselves.

I’ve really perfected this kooky little boy bit. Tongue out’s particularly good, don’t you think?

Sometimes I’m afraid Susie’s going to waver – think it would be cosy to be NORMAL. Disgusting word. Sometimes I’m afraid she’ll crack and ask if we can go home with one of these losers. Play happy families.

No way.

There’s no such thing as a happy family.

Sometimes I have to give Susie a pep talk. At least she’s been perfecting her knife skills. One day she started talking about working in a restaurant when she grows up. Silly cow. I told her, people like us don’t grow up. They make sure of that.

It’s the moments just before I enjoy the most. The tension. The build-up. I feel myself growing calmer, happier, sunnier.

“What a dear little boy,” they say.

Any minute now I’ll give the word. No-one will even look up, not at first.

They don’t know she’s the one who taught us what to do when the time came.

Any minute now.

“Mummy!”

I didn’t know quite how many sinister interpretations you’d all manage to get out of that adorable scene up top, but I do know exactly who I’ll have to blame for the nightmares I’m going to be having for the next few weeks. Congratulations to Thea, Thom and Sarah and many, many thanks to everyone that sent in their spooky tales! I’ll be back next week — same time, same place. Less horrific prompt.

Until then!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 26/10/2018

Happy almost Halloween! In defiance of the calendar, we’ve (I’ve) been celebrating Halloween all week and so it is only right that today’s flash fiction competition prompt is spooky and terrifying and all things Halloween should be.

A quick reminder of the rules, before we begin.

You’re going to see a prompt. Using that prompt, we’d like you to write a short story of 250 words or less. Send your story in the body of an email, including the title and the wordcount, to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm this afternoon. No later! The winner wins these books: 

'All My Puny Sorrows' by Miriam Toews, 'Nine Lessons' by Nicola Upson, 'All the Beautiful Lies' by Peter Swanson - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Ready? Here you go: 

Image of a table outside of a wooden cabin. There are three people sitting at a table; two children and an adult. The young children both seem to be carving miniature pumpkins. The female child is using a knife to carve the inside of the pumpkin, while the boy has his hand inside his pumpkin, presumably about to pull out the innards. The boy is pulling a face of disgust while the adult is watching and laughing. Around the three are some fully carved pumpkins, other gourds and some pumpkin shaped food stuffs. Just visible behind one of the figures is a banner, partially obscured, reading Halloween - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Terrifying, right?

Be back at 3:30!

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

#QUICKFIC 19/10/2018: The Winner

an image of coffee being made and poured on a table, with a faint woodland scene in the background. There is a large, steaming coffee pot just visible to the left, with two glass mugs waiting for coffee to be poured in. Coffee beans litter the table, spilling out of a copper bowl. Two ceramic looking jugs containing mysterious contents wait on the right, while an hand pours freshly made coffee out of a small glass cafetiere and in to one of the glass mugs. - quickfic, flash fiction competition

Runner Up: Claire Bennett

Coffee with a Colleague

She’d not really slept the night before, thoughts of the morning running through her mind.

She supposed she couldn’t really refuse his invitation and on the face of it, it was only coffee with a colleague, coffee with a colleague. Her mind ran over and over the phrase like some sort of mantra to help keep her anxiety at bay. Weeks of private smiles in meetings, accidental run-ins in the kitchen, graduating to the forwarding on of corporate emails, adding in commentary and recommendations of favourite books and music.

It made her feel excited in a nervy way and try as she might to keep her composure, she found her mouth fixed with a permanent smile for hours afterwards. There was an undercurrent to it all though, and that was what had kept her from sleep. Why was she feeling this oh-so- recognisable feeling about a man 30 years her senior, a man she wouldn’t look at twice if he tried to catch her eye on the tube?

Runner Up: Jennifer Harvey

This Fantastic, Incomparable, Instagrammable Life

Here, let me show you how it’s done. It’s all in the polish and the presentation. Nothing is too dull. Everything can shine and glisten. Even a life like your own.

No, trust me, it’s true. I can take your drudgery and spin it into gold.

Like this morning, when you woke feeling listless and emptied from a dreamless sleep? We can fill that space with aspiration. All you need to do, is imagine, believe, dream.

Ready? Okay, then tell me, what you see.

A room, morning bright, air filled with the oily aroma of coffee, table set with care and attention. Spoons polished. Napkins folded. A flower. And two cups. In this place you are not alone. The days begin with little rituals of affection, and life stretches ahead with such promise.

An illusion you say? Perhaps. But the dream is yours and who’s to say what’s real or imagined. Look, here, take it. Hold it to the light, turn it this way and that. See how it sparkles, how it shines. How it makes you smile.

You feel it don’t you? A flutter inside. Happiness? Yes, let’s call it that. And though it is fleeting, it fills you all the same. And your longing, is now your reality.

Believe. Imagine. Dream.

And hold on to the illusion. Face the world with a glow of perfection. They will never know. Because there you are, and they see you now, fantastic, incomparable.

And happy, oh so happy. 

Winner: Anstey Harris

This is Me

Cut!’

Five pairs of hands bustle in. One to take the jug from her before there is a chance of the coffee splashing onto her skin. Two to thrust cushions under her wrists lest those hands land awkwardly somewhere or snag on an unseen menace.

‘It’s not just the hands,’ says her entry in Spotlight. ‘The wrists, the angle of bone and sinew, the skin tone: there are so many reasons Jennifer Dunn’s hands are THE hands.’ So many reasons her hands are insured for ten million dollars, so many reasons that no one ever touches her except with – real – kid gloves.

Her assistants – Maureen and Joe – hold the gloves and, mechanically, she slips each slender finger into place. Joe doesn’t look up. Maureen doesn’t ask about her life, what she’s been doing. Everyone in the studio concentrates on Jennifer’s matchless hands.

If Maureen had asked, Jennifer might have told her about the man who moved in across the hall yesterday: how he looked at her, really looked. How the constant cloak of loneliness she wears shifted, slipped slightly, gaped.

There is a big green bin outside Jennifer’s block. She drops the gloves in, one at a time, and knocks on his door.

‘Hi’ he says and his eyes trace the scar under her eye, note the missing hair above her left ear. He smiles.

‘I forgot to get your number,’ she says.

‘Easy,’ he says. He lifts her hand and writes – a tattooed promise – across her perfect skin.

Well! What a welcome back! Congratulations to Anstey, Jennifer and Claire. And a huge thank you to everyone who sent in a story — every last one was completely brilliant. Have wonderful weekends everyone, and we’ll be back next Friday at the slightly earlier time of 9:50 am.

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 19/10/2018

Good morning everybody! You asked and asked, and we answered! Yes, #QUICKFIC, Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition, is back and it’s bigger and better than ever. We’re coming at the slightly later time of 10:50 but, as you’ll see below, this is a one time only occurrence. So don’t get used to it!

Here’s how to play:

  • You’ll be presented with a prompt on Friday morning at 9:50 am. This is anything my devious mind can come up with, so be prepared!
  • Your task is to create a short story of 250 words or less inspired by that prompt.
  • Paste your story into the body of an email, including a title and your word count, and send that email to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50pm on the Friday afternoon.

At 3:30 we’ll announce the winner. That lucky person gets a stack of books as their prize. Much like this stack, in fact:

Stack of three books including 'Sugar Money' by Jane Harris, 'Lullaby' by Leila Slimani and 'For the First Time Ever: A Memoir' Peggy Seeger - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition quickfic

So here we go. Your first prompt is below:

an image of coffee being made and poured on a table, with a faint woodland scene in the background. There is a large, steaming coffee pot just visible to the left, with two glass mugs waiting for coffee to be poured in. Coffee beans litter the table, spilling out of a copper bowl. Two ceramic looking jugs containing mysterious contents wait on the right, while an hand pours freshly made coffee out of a small glass cafetiere and in to one of the glass mugs. - quickfic, flash fiction competition

See you back here at 3:30!

Review: THE LONG TAKE by ROBIN ROBERTSON

This review by Ruby Bamber (Senior Sales Operations Executive at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

A 225-page epic long-form poem sounds like a daunting read, but  the medium is perfect for this story. Wounded war veteran Walker, returned  to North America from Europe, is roaming. Set in four parts between 1948 and 1953 (with the occasional reference to the mid-50s), Robertson’s sweeping epic takes in the glamorous grime of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago as Walker moves between cities, hitching rides where he can and taking it all in.

The period detail comes thick and fast. To use the word atmospheric would be hugely underselling it – The Long Take feels as close to being in 50s America as I’ll ever get. For anyone who has enjoyed the grubby thrill of a classic noir film, or gone on holiday to the States hoping to sit in a dark and faintly squalid bar to watch the world go by, this is very much the tale for you. There are dive bars, road trips, faded hotels, all-night picture houses. All of the mentions of films, studios and actors of the period give this book the old Hollywood vibe that is so at odds with the scores of broken characters Walker encounters.

It highlights the America that is familiar to everyone, the dual reality of a country where everymen sit in picture houses in questionable parts of town to watch the manufactured ‘America’ on film. Robertson’s book is the antithesis of a Hollywood studio film – his is not an America cleaned up and packaged for the masses. The Long Take shows us this perfectly, and, as Walker puts it himself: ‘American cities have no past, no history. Sometimes I think the only American history is on film.’

The narrative is punctuated by Walker’s memories of his time at war, his life previously, and postcards and missives to his friends and family in Nova Scotia, which all add to the scrapbook effect of the work. It feels at points like rifling through someone’s belongings, getting to pore over their diaries and photographs, getting some of your questions answered, but knowing you’ll never quite get to find out the full picture. By contrast, there are passages where you are living completely in Walker’s head.

The time stamps are subtle but effective (price changes at the cinema, tiny inconsequential details) and in 1953, when Walker returns to San Francisco, things have changed. The conversations he has show how people are moving on from the chaos of the years immediately following the war. America is settling and other tensions are rising (a graphic, if fleeting, mention of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks is particularly moving).

The Long Take is like being on an epic road trip, speeding along the American coast and catching intoxicating glimpses of places and people in a country in a period of great change.  This book should not be written off for the familiar fear of not ‘getting’ poetry – you would be robbing yourself of a moving and addictive Americana experience. I loved it.

Review: THE MARS ROOM by RACHEL KUSHNER

This review by Joanna Lee (Communications Administrator at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a book that hits you with a world so perfectly formed, so intense, that it knocks you to the ground – disoriented, intimidated and deeply sad in equal measure. It paces the confines of the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, where our narrator, Romy Hall, is serving two life sentences (plus six years).

The uncanny oddness of being condemned to serve two ‘life’ sentences (plus six years) isn’t unintentional. Logic is thrown out of the barred windows at Stanville, bulldozed by rules so rigid as to be destructive.  

Kushner’s great skill lies in exposing these bars as hollow. The truth doesn’t matter – both to the state and the inmates. There is a rumour that Betty LaFrance’s ‘legs are insured for millions’, but Romy doesn’t buy it. ‘You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.’ The still surface of the slick, smooth prose hints at the anger and crowbars beneath.

Spiking the narrative bravado are disarming punches of pathos: ‘The women made greeting cards by hand in emulation of a machine-printed corporate look: their best work resembled cards you could buy at Rite Aid.’ Even the ‘best work’ of these women – crafted with effort, made to be individual and unique – are casually indistinguishable from mass-produced bits of tat costing mere cents. Sad, right?

The detail in the book is immense, both to its credit and its detriment. It makes for a totally immersive reading experience, but at times can feel superfluously long. Kushner builds a labyrinth filled with lifelike characters, meticulous research and myriad intricacies; but this means it’s all too easy to get a little lost.  

Overall, I’d totally recommend this book. If you’ve got a few hours to spare, spend them hanging out with Kushner’s company of inmates. They’re worth your time.