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The Prisoner and the Chaplain

by Michelle Berry

Time is running out in different ways for the title characters of The Prisoner and the Chaplain. For the former, the hours between midnight and noon are slated to be the last of his life; he’s awaiting execution by electrocution for crimes so savagely violent there is left no chance for pardon. For the latter, the same 12-hour stretch is pressurized by questions of professional ethics: how to best give comfort to a man whose existence has been reduced to a simple game of running out the clock?

It’s the chaplain whose emotional dilemma gets privileged in Michelle Berry’s new novel. While the book toggles between both characters’ points of view and histories – which, in accordance with the stark, parable-like set-up, contain their fair share of parallels – it’s more about how the ostensibly innocent man sees the guilty one, and also how his perspective shifts not in spite of his charge’s increasingly horrible revelations but in sync with them. The cleverness of Berry’s conceit is that it puts the reader in a position of judgment akin to the man of God, while letting us simultaneously examine his frailties as well.

These, it should be said, are myriad: Berry is not an austere writer, and the structural ingenuity of her set-up doesn’t quite belie her reliance on overstatement. There’s a strained quality to some of the hard-edged dialogue (the prison’s warden is particularly cartoonish) and the overamped melodrama of the prisoner’s backstory. There is the possibility that the dead man walking’s confession – which circles back to his childhood and juvenile delinquency before catching up to the thing that got him locked up – is being exaggerated or otherwise manipulated for the chaplain’s benefit. Berry doesn’t do as much with this as she could, however. The borderline Dickensian heaviness of the prisoner’s life experiences are meant to be taken at face value, and as such occasionally skirt parody. So too does the device of framing the chaplain’s narration with a heavily symbolic dream – one whose meaning is fated to be explained instead of hanging in metaphorical counterpoint to the action.

Berry’s need to be understood, even at times when a bit of ambiguity would go a long way, is overbearing. What she’s good at – excellent, in fact – is parcelling out terse little bits of description that fill the mind’s eye beyond their narrative function. The chaplain’s offhand observation that “there is no soap for the sink” says more about the cell’s status as a point of no return for its tenants than his anguished internal monologue on the subject.

She also manages, from her outsider’s perch as a Canadian author, to politicize the subject of capital punishment. Without explicitly condemning the practice, she points out both its unthinkable brutality and the monstrous, bureaucratic detachment it takes to carry it out. The terror and disgust she works up in the novel’s closing passages have staying power beyond the contrivances of its plot.