Lesley Glaister’s top 10 books about incarceration

From the fictional horrors of Stephen King’s Misery to the real-life nightmare of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the novelist picks out her favourite stories of imprisonment – and wonders if a short spell in jail might just help her finish her new novel

prison window

‘There seems to be a natural link between incarceration and story telling’ … Bars on the window of a prison cell on French Guiana.The award-winning Lesley Glaister was “discovered” by Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel while taking a creative writing course in 1989; Mantel was so impressed with her writing that she recommended Glaister to a literary agent. Now the author of 13 novels, her first, Honour Thy Father, won both the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham prizes; her latest, Chosen, delves into the world of religious cults as Dodie tries to rescue her brother Seth from the mysterious Soul Life Centre.

“There seems to be a natural link between incarceration and story telling. A person forcibly removed from the comfort and distractions of the familiar, and shut up in a cell (or hospital, hostage situation, madman’s cellar or the prison of their own failing body) will be forced to travel inwards to the place where memories twist and loop and spin themselves into story. Incarceration may be a primal human dread, but it also has its fascination, even a peculiar attraction. Freedom may be taken away but with it responsibility, and perhaps deep within our psyches there’s an urge to be contained? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, writers are very often drawn to explore the experiences of characters challenged by this particular conflict – whether or not they have suffered it themselves. And I’m sure I’m not the only law-abiding writer who has occasionally wondered whether a short prison sentence might provide just the necessary discipline to finish that novel…”

1. Rumpelstiltskin (originally collected by the Brothers Grimm)

Fairy stories are full of people being locked up, needing to be rescued or, more satisfyingly, to find the magic key for their own escape. In this strange story a miller’s daughter is imprisoned by the king, after her father has told the boastful lie that she can spin gold from straw. She’s helped by a dwarf to complete the magical task but, in return, she must promise the dwarf her first-born child. Once she’s married to the king and expecting a baby she begs to be released from her side of the bargain. The dwarf agrees – on the condition that she guess his name. By trickery – not magic – she does this, which so amazes and enrages Rumpelstiltskin that he stamps hard enough on the ground to split it open, falls into the chasm and is never seen again. Oddly, as a child, my sympathies were with him.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Like many children, I found the idea of being an orphan extremely appealing and identified to a ridiculous degree with poor orphaned Jane Eyre, who as a child is bullied by her cousin until she retaliates. Her punishment for this is to be locked into the “red-room” in which her uncle, Mr Reed, recently died. She tries to be brave, but as it gets dark thinks she sees her uncle’s ghost, panics, screams and faints. (And, of course, as an adult, Jane is brought into opposition with another incarcerated female, the tragic and frightening Bertha, Rochester’s first – mad – wife, secretly imprisoned in the attic.)

3. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

The teenage narrator of this perfect book is desperate for her father Mortmain, a one-time experimental novelist with terrible writer’s block, to begin writing again – for the sake of his sanity as well as the family coffers. She hatches a plan to lock him into the dungeon of their castle home, and, with the help of her brother, traps him there in a sort of enforced writer’s retreat. The place is stocked with reams of fresh stationery, and delicious food, wine and cigars are lowered down at intervals. At first Mortmain rages and tries to trick his way out – but by the time he’s rescued by his wife, the incarceration has worked and he’s successfully embarked upon another strange, eccentric work. (Will somebody please do this to me?)

4. Misery by Stephen King

There’s a less appealing version of the enforced writer’s retreat in this terrifying novel – terrifying particularly, perhaps, for a writer. In a remote part of Maine, a popular novelist crashes his car and his life is saved by a mad fan. She’s mortified to discover that he’s killed off Misery, her favourite character, and keeps him prisoner, insisting that he write a novel resurrecting Misery. She’s the most fanatically particular and violent editor/jailer one can imagine. It’s an intense book, with just these two central characters locked in a close and claustrophobic tangle of mind-games, combat and downright gruesome nastiness.

5. The Collector by John Fowles

Frederick, a butterfly collector, decides to augment his collection with Miranda, a beautiful young art student. The novel is brilliantly structured so that first of all the reader experiences the “collection” – the capture and imprisonment of Miranda from Frederick’s point of view. His almost heroic self-delusion as he goes about trying to win her love and trust makes for excruciating reading. The second part of the book switches to Miranda’s narrative, in the form of the diary she’s kept secretly during her ordeal in Frederick’s basement. And in the last section, we’re back with Frederick again as he makes us aware of Miranda’s fate and prepares for the capture of another specimen. This adds up to a truly chilling and horribly plausible story.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Most people find it hard enough to write a book at all, but this one was written against extraordinary odds by Bauby, former editor-in chief of Elle magazine, after he suffered a stroke which left him comatose. Twenty days later, he regained consciousness to find himself entirely paralysed, except for the ability to blink his eyes. This condition is known as locked-in syndrome – the most frighteningly complete manner of incarceration I can imagine. Amazingly, by laboriously blinking his left eyelid to indicate letters of the alphabet, Bauby managed to “write” his devastatingly elegant and moving memoir. Each word took him an average of two minutes to spell out, and the whole process over ten months – truly a triumph of the human spirit and enough to make anyone complaining of writer’s block ashamed.

7. Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

Another example of physiological incarceration, this time caused by an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica – sleeping sickness – in the 1920’s. Oliver Sacks tells the story of some of these “locked in” patients, who were studied and cared for in a small hospital in the Bronx. In 1969, it was discovered – almost by chance – that treatment with L-DOPA would reawaken the sufferers, and it’s wonderfully moving to see them warm and thaw and regain movement and personality. However, the effect proves not to be permanent and these poor people, having experienced a brief period of freedom, gradually become locked in again.

8. Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

Janet Frame spent eight years of her life in prison having been wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and true to her calling as a writer transformed her ordeal into a powerful novel. This gives us a visceral insight into the feelings of being mad, terrified, humiliated, and zombified by drugs and electric shock treatment. Frame’s main character, Estina, both refuses to and is unable to behave “normally”, and thus is scheduled for the ultimate treatment (or punishment) – a lobotomy. Fiction comes to Estina’s rescue (just as it did Frame’s own) when one perceptive doctor discovers her talent for writing and she is released, with her lobes entire, back into the world.

9. The Railway Man by Eric Lomax

My childhood was dominated by the tension surrounding a silence, only subsequently recognised as a sort of smothered trauma – that of my father’s never spoken about experience as a POW in Burma. It was only when I came to research my own novel, Easy Peasy, that I was brought face to face with some of what he must have suffered. Central to my research was Eric Lomax’s book The Railway Man. Like my own father, Lomax was captured in Singapore by the Japanese army in 1942 and assigned to a prison camp, where he suffered years of filth, vermin, starvation, disease and the brutality of the prison guards. The men were forced to toil naked in the sun, and to endure beatings, torture and the agony of seeing their mates perish around them. Movingly, this book ends on an optimistic note as, half a century later, Lomax meets and is able to shake hands with a young Japanese interpreter who had been present at his torture, and is now a contrite and dedicated anti-war campaigner.

10. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This list would not be complete without the inclusion of this great classic of prison writing. As a warm, well-fed child (and before I knew anything about my father’s own terrible experience) I got a masochistic thrill from reading this, and imagined myself subjected to main character Shukov’s deprivations. Because the treatment in the freezing gulag was so extremely cruel, the work so terribly hard, there’s an intense, visceral pleasure in reading about the scraps of food, warmth and kindness Shukov manages to glean in just one day of the 3,653 that he has yet to endure. Strikingly, with his existence pared down to a few simple needs – warmth, a bit of sausage, a kind word – and having to some extent fulfilled these needs, Shukov ends the day feeling almost happy.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/13/top-10-incarceration-stories-lesley-glaister