Eye-opening crime novel explores the plight of imprisoned women

In essence 'On my life' is a subtle study and subsequent awareness attempt of the plight of imprisoned women without skimping an iota on entertainment value, writes Sonja van der Westhuizen

16 April 2019 - 11:54 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
Short, punchy sentences amplify the tension and see to it that we’re swept up in the pace and tension of the prison environment.
Short, punchy sentences amplify the tension and see to it that we’re swept up in the pace and tension of the prison environment.
Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers

On my life
Angela Clarke
Hodder & Stoughton, R325

On my Life will pull the rug from under you and leave you momentarily airborne before you hit the ground.

Here’s a seemingly standard crime fiction novel with a fairly regular storyline. Woman gets arrested for killing her stepdaughter and is also suspected of killing her fiancé, who, conveniently, goes missing. To complicate matters, woman can’t remember the incident. However, On my Life will rise far above your initial expectations and first impressions.

For the first few chapters of the novel you might wrongly assume you’re reading typical crime fiction. This is where Angela Clarke is particularly adept as a writer. These pages read with such ease, you’ll be entirely invested in both the characters and the storyline before you can say “Orange is the new black”.

But then she gets down to the heart of the matter. The story quickly commences to swing between the present and past, contrasting Jenna’s carefree life before with the harsh reality of the present.

Jennifer Burns becomes Alice and tumbles down the rabbit hole when she falls in love with Robert Milcombe, wealthy hotelier and heir to an estate reminiscent of Downton Abbey. Soon she finds herself having to adapt to the family and Robert’s high standards and demands, as well as their controlling ways. Her life quickly starts to unravel and she transforms from Jenna with the perfect life to the “Blonde slayer”, a media figure.

Instead of overwhelming her readers with palpable social commentary on the grossly unfair way in which women in the prison system are treated and the conditions they have to endure, we are experiencing it. We empathise with her as she struggles to clear her name and tries to survive in an environment where you are stripped of your rights and privileges, even more so if you are pregnant.

Through vivid descriptions of the women’s personalities, personal battles and interpersonal relationships characters grow authentic and multi-dimensional and we are gradually familiarised with the injustice and futility of their situation. The section after the arrest describing her transport to the prison is detailed with mortifyingly honest detail and the main character’s fear is glaringly obvious.

It’s clear from the amount of detail in Clarke’s writing that she’s done a great deal of research and in doing so, realised that we need to change our perception of prisoners and prisons. According to statistics supplied at the end of the novel, 84% of women in prison are in for non-violent crime. Prisons in the UK are understaffed and there is a severe need for better education and support to enable prisoners to be rehabilitated.

Even though the novel is based in Britain, comparisons can most likely be drawn to conditions in women prisons around the world, in particular in South Africa.

According to a 2018 article in TimesLIVE female prisoners in South Africa experience the same high occurrence of mental illness and lack of psychological services as observed in the UK and as described in On my Life. Depression is commonly diagnosed and one of the main reasons for mental illness and possible suicide is the inability of mothers to deal with the separation from their children.

In essence On my Life is a subtle study and subsequent awareness attempt of the plight of imprisoned women without skimping an iota on entertainment value. It comes as no surprise that Clarke is a screenwriter and playwright. She knows how to engage an audience and On my Life reads like the next blockbuster.

Short, punchy sentences amplify the tension and see to it that we’re swept up in the pace and tension of the prison environment. It’s a daunting, frightening and eye-opening read in which Angela Clarke commits an astounding feat – combining facts with fiction in a riveting read.

X