Simon Mills, a solicitor, isn’t the kind of man to go to prison. His new wife Claire, an artist, isn’t the kind of woman to have a husband ‘Inside’. But one night, after offering to drive their dinner guests home, Simon is involved in an horrific crash down a narrow Devonshire lane and is sent to prison for two years.
‘GUILTY’ is written in two parts: the first deals with Simon’s life in prison and the second, with his life once he’s released. It is told in alternate viewpoints: Claire’s and Simon’s as well as the ghostly voice of Joanna, who died in the crash. This is a haunting modern-day story that could happen to you.
It quickly shows how Simon’s world becomes very small once he's in prison. So the littlest things become immensely important to him, like whether Claire’s phone goes straight to voicemail, or she picks up and speaks to him. I was reminded of when I used to watch Big Brother (when Channel 4 did it, and it could be described as a social experiment if you did the mental equivilant of squinting). In the BB house even a small issue like someone eating another housemate’s ham, or using someone’s shampoo became an immense deal, because the house was their whole world. Guilty shows how for Simon, that is exactly how he felt in prison. Tiny, inconsequential things which we all take for granted, when not in prison become so important for him.
There are often misunderstandings between Claire and Simon and assumptions are made in the gap between communications as he can't just call her whenever he wants.
The whole thing includes details about being in a prison which teaches you something as you read, but doesn't feel like any more than storytelling. I recognised quite a few facts and elements in the story from when Jane came to the RNA’s London Chapter in 2013 to talk about her experience as a writer in residence of a men’s category B prison. She has undoubtedly used this experience to give GUILTY its realism and authenticity. Examples of this include: the items prohibited from being taken into prison, ranging from sellotape to mobile phones; The Book of Uncommon Prayer which she produced with her class of inmates; the details of how prisoners spend their time; and the etiquette of not asking prisoners the crimes they committed to bring them to prison.
The story after Simon is ‘on the Out’ as it’s called, is just as interesting as when he’s in prison. It shows the impact of a member of the family being in prison, to both the individual and the wider family, ranging from house insurance to job opportunities.
The ending neatly wraps it all together, which is exactly the sort of ending I most enjoy. The characters are different, have grown and changed in ways they wouldn’t have realised at the start. And Simon’s prison sentence also has some unintended positive consequences to his family.
It gave me an insight into life in prison and afterwards, without feeling like a textbook/ self help book. The story weaved the insights in, so you hardly notice you're acquiring this new knowledge. An interesting, and entertaining read.
Does this sound like the sort of thing you'd read? It's not my usual genre, but I thought I'd better take some of my own advice and read a bit 'off piste' for once, and I'm glad I did.