by Kenneth J. Harvey
Published by Random House
288 pages, 2006
The Cell Within
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
After 14 years in prison, Myrden is released. It appears that he was wrongfully accused, although readers can never be certain whether or not he did murder his girlfriend. He was too drunk to remember anything. The friends who were with him that night -- Grom, Willis, Muss and Squid -- all testified against him.
Myrden was never going to do well outside. Coming from a childhood with horrors of its own, without an education or even the skills needed to cope in the world, he impregnated his girlfriend at an early age, did the "right thing" and married her, and proceeded to father five more children on her during his rare visits home. His surviving children (one son is dead -- possibly murdered by the same men who put him away, and another dies one day after his release from prison) have no time for him. Did he simply neglect them, or worse? Who knows? Myrden doesn't share his thoughts freely.
Released from prison, he returns to his shoddy St. John's, Newfoundland, neighborhood and to his wife, who now lives in a different house, probably with someone else. He's not there often enough to know, and he doesn't really care anyway, even though he beats a man over it. The wife is only tolerating her husband's occasional appearances until the government check arrives. After the boisterous neighborhood homecoming, he drinks himself into daily oblivion while awaiting the settlement his lawyer says is due any day -- a check that will ensure he never again will need to visit the welfare office or look for a casual labor job.
There are three females in his life who hold out the hope that he may redeem himself: the daughter, Jackie; her young daughter, Caroline; and Ruth, a lover from his early married days who seems unrealistically capable of incredible devotion. She lost a child many years earlier, possibly Myrden's. True to the character of the man, very little information is forthcoming.
Stylistically, the book is a challenge, written in staccato, understated bursts of thought and dialogue which continue throughout. It's a hard thing to carry off, but Harvey has the confidence and the credentials to try it. It would have worked better for me if the truncated text could have been relieved here and there. That's not to say it isn't credible. Try this. Read the following sentences aloud. They work. They're perfect for the man and the moment.
The crowd gathered there in the parking lot. Moving around but silent in that screen. Waiting for his release. He saw the book for signing in and out. Resting on a ledge. The different signatures. He passed by the visitors. They watched him move. Like they had never seen a man move before. He listened carefully. Edgy. Waiting to hear the buzz of the main door. He thought it might not come. The weight in his chest. His breathing. His shoulders aching.
It's perfect syntax for an anxious man about to be freed, a man who has been in prison so long his thoughts and his speech are muted and abbreviated, a man who was never good with words to start with. Nevertheless, authenticity is only part of a literary whole.
The ex-convict has a good friend in Randy, a man who gladly goes to bat for him in a bar when his enemies gather to pounce, and who then goes to prison with the same good nature when he puts two of them out of action. Unfortunately the worst villain, the one who lives with and abuses his daughter, Jackie, escapes Randy's wrath.
Myrden has moments of insight, moments of pure love and understanding, of regrets, and of longing. He buys a home for Jackie and his beloved granddaughter, believing that there they can be safe, and he takes a vacation abroad with his old girlfriend, Ruth, but he is never going to escape the inevitable. His uncontrollable rage and inability to handle things in any way other than physically are going to undo him, and deep down he knows this. The police won't rescue Jackie from her abusive husband; it seems only Myrden can do that, and there is only one way he knows how to do it.
A publicity blurb compares Inside to a Greek tragedy and actually it's spot on. The novel plods onwards to an ending that does seem preordained, inevitable, and depressing. Can't love, can't financial security, can't intimations of a better life conquer the savagery and the despair? It seems not.
There is no help from authorities. The men, who nailed Myrden as the killer and sent him to jail, don't even get charged. He's doomed indeed.
This is a difficult read.
Harvey has a large following and impressive credentials. Writing from an outpost in Newfoundland, he emerges occasionally to collect awards and be publicly lauded. He has won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and Italy's Libro Del Mare, and has been nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. His work has been published in eight countries, including Russia. | October 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.