The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry

What if you only had 12 hours left to live, and you were shut up in a room with only one other person – a stranger – what would you have to say? This is the premise behind Michelle Berry’s most recent novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain. The Prisoner is on death row for his crimes, and he has requested to spend his last hours with the Chaplain. The question of what they would have to say to each other kept me completely engrossed in this story.

The conversation doesn’t go the way the Chaplain expects it to; he thought there would be a lot of repenting, and maybe some protesting against his circumstances. But the Prisoner just wants to tell his story and have someone listen.

He imagined thrown furniture, screaming, crying, begging, pleading, anger, remorse, fear. He imagined telephone calls to loved ones, last minute appeals, rooms full of people rushing about.

He isn’t confessing and he isn’t asking for forgiveness. It’s merely – this is my life, Listen. Then you can kill me.

But he’s not the only one with a story to tell. As the minutes tick by, the Prisoner tells his story. And as the Prisoner tells his story, the Chaplain reflects on his own imperfect life and what brought him to where he is today. If things had gone differently for him, it’s not too far off to imagine that he could have ended up where the Prisoner is today. Are they really so different?

The Chaplain knows more than anyone how easily things you don’t intend to happen can happen.

The Chaplain also has to come to terms with his job at a prison that supports the death penalty – something that he doesn’t believe in. And as he listens to the Prisoner’s story, he thinks about the unfairness of it all.

He wonders when the rain stopped. He remembers the storm only a few hours ago, how soaked he got getting his coffee. He remembers the smell in the air of the wet pavement steaming. The heat of the summer washing off. The feel of sunshine upon your face. He thinks of rain. Or snow. The Prisoner will have none of this ever again. So the Chaplain holds his hand as he rocks and tries not to think of the pain in his knees as he kneels down here, on the cold, hard floor of the cell, with the Prisoner now.

One of the things I like best about the story is the structure. Each chapter is an hour closer to the time of execution, and as the book goes on you feel the tension building as the Chaplain keeps his eye on the clock, dreading what’s to come. It feels like a thriller as we find out how the Prisoner’s story ends.

At times the Chaplain’s circling thoughts about guilt and execution feel repetitious, but I still strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject. Despite this minor fault, I found it captivating.

The Prisoner and the Chaplain explores guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, and forgiveness.

And now, I’m going to have to go back and read her other books.

Thank you to Wolsak and Wynn for sending me a copy of this book! The quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof.

Further Reading:

Michelle Berry owns her own book store in Peterborough, Ontario – Hunter Street Books.  (I hear it’s nice!)

Review at Pickle Me This: “The novel’s momentum starts strong and just keeps going and going, and then the ending packs a wallop. Make sure you set aside a good block hours before you start this book, because you’ll be needing every one of them.”

Hear Jael Richardson talk about it on CBC’s “q”

Review at Quill & Quire: “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.”

Review at The Star: ““I was thinking about guilt and two people with different kinds of guilt being stuck together,” Berry says. “I’m really interested in structure, and wanted every hour to be a chapter and to see if I could even speed it up, so you get a sense of fastness to the story.”

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