Could you take a life? Not in self defense, but in cold blood? (Probably best not to answer that question in a public forum.) Most of us would probably say no (and I’m one of them). Most of us might not even ever admit to wondering about any of this (I’ve thought about it because I’m weird). We’re taught at an early age that life is sacred. It’s ingrained. As a species we look for a way to prolong our lives. We instinctively protect our young. But, we also follow court cases and media when there are murders with interest. We watch movies and play games that are increasingly violent. We study this violence with emotion ranging from fascination to horror, but we don’t seem to ever completely look away. Inside These Walls by Rebecca Coleman tackles this level of violence from inside the mind of a very normal woman who happens to be what society defines as a killer.
It seems that Rebecca Coleman has a knack for discussing the taboo. This is the second novel of Coleman’s that I’ve read that’s left me a bit stunned. Her debut novel, Kingdom of Childhood, left me feeling kind of dirty. Stunned, but dirty. We follow a teacher who is as normal as they come — married, son, picket-fence-kind-of-life — who eventually develops a sexual relationship with a minor. It kind of hurts your brain to read it, because it’s done so delicately that, by the time the relationship develops, you actually kind of get it. I closed the book thinking, “Jesus. I can see how that happened.” It wasn’t the sort of response from myself that I’d expected; I didn’t really want to have that response. I can’t help but appreciate a writer that can trigger a strong emotional response, especially one so unexpected. Kingdom of Childhood was also an ABNA 2010 semifinalist and voted a Library Journal “Best Books of 2011,” so don’t just take my word for it.
The narrator of Inside These Walls, Clara, is an inmate in a women’s prison, and as a reader, we never see her leave the prison. Only rarely do we ever catch a glimpse of the world outside the prison, and those moments are only seen through memory. The novel is in a first person point of view, so we’re (the reader) really tight with Clara by the end. Other characters only exist when they step into the prison.
What I found to be the most compelling element of this story is that the narrator has done something completely unforgivable, and we’re shown how to feel compassion for someone who has done something incredibly evil. We see Clara through the eyes of witnesses as she rereads testimony from her own trail, while at the same time we’re privy to how she saw things happen, how she felt about it, and why she did what she did. With this novel, just like Kingdom of Childhood, I made it to the end and understood the deep down of who Clara was. Here’s a hint: Clara really isn’t any different from any other woman.
When we write, we write about what it is to be human. In some form or another, we’re trying to humanize our demons. Coleman does this delicately, almost politely, and shows us what it is to stand on the other side of that line. The one that most of us don’t dare to cross. When you stop and think, “Why would someone ever do (insert horrific taboo event)?” Well, Coleman shows you how. From the inside. From that moment when a characters life starts to veer of course just a bit, tries to correct, and careens out of control.
Part of us is always aware that there’s another side to every story. Coleman shows us that bared underbelly of the anathema that seems to say, I am the villain; I am the victim. The paradox at the heart of every taboo.
For more on Rebecca Coleman, check out her author site.