Tears of a Phoenix by Helen Noble
|Tears of a Phoenix by Helen Noble|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A fascinating exploration of what makes, sustains and could possibly save a violent offender. Ghanaian culture mixes with the English penal system and an accumulated family history of pain and hopelessness in Helen Noble's insightful, unusual debut novel.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 238||Date: May 2012|
|Publisher: Soul Rocks Books|
It was almost inevitable that Jed Johnson would follow his brothers into crime. The slippery slope from care to young offenders' institute to an eventual life sentence was almost predictable despite his mother's attempts to raise him for responsibility. However, once serving the life sentence, Jed has time to think and, aided by Elisabeth, a prison service psychologist, he assesses his past and decides how he'd like his future to look. Decision doesn't guarantee fulfilment though, and Jed has a long way to go before he knows how his story will end.
This is a powerful, authoritative novel due, in no small part, to the author's experience and inside knowledge (no pun intended). Helen Noble may be new to writing fiction, but as a trained psychologist and lawyer who's worked in the criminal justice system, her experience is evident.
Tears of a Phoenix isn't just about a man trying to break the pattern of a lifetime; it's about power and control in the world of the contemporary gang member. It makes sense that, from a deprived childhood, young people like Jed would see crime as a way in which to reclaim their lives rather than become socially deprived flotsam. By committing theft or assault, they have the upper hand and so are able to take some form of warped control. Once taken into custody, their control is removed but can be replaced by things like graduation in prison pecking order and not allowing themselves to be cowed or oppressed by the staff. The tragedy is that, once released, it's difficult for them not to return to the type of life and sense of power that they enjoyed before.
At first Jed is another hard boiled criminal; a genre statistic rather than a person. Then gradually, through the journal entries he writes to explain himself to Elisabeth, the person emerges. We see his past as he dissects it along with his feelings. His two short-lived relationships, his two children, the way he related to his brothers and sister and his difficulty (to say the least) accepting that his widowed mother could love again... the detail is as enthralling as it is sad. Helen Noble has been particularly clever here as the reader realises who Jed is at the same time that he does.
The intricacies, dilemmas and problems of everyday prison life are also compulsively revealed. Even if a prisoner decides that he/she wants to change, there are still obstacles, pitfalls and frustrations to test the most stalwart determination. It's like an all too real game of snakes and ladders. Being awarded a place on a rehabilitation scheme could be a step up to freedom, but then there are always events, attitudes or people who ensure that the downward snakes follow swiftly. The greatest tragedy of this is that sometimes the people acting as unreasonable obstacles are those classed as the 'goodies' by the outside world.
Running alongside Jed's reality checks is the discovery of his Ghanaian roots and the culture of his ancestors, the Ashanti tribe. This, for him, is a new take on the power that he's sought as he discovers that potency doesn't just come from what can be taken or who can be intimidated but can legally emanate from self-respect and a heritage understood.
In the end Tears of a Phoenix is Jed's journey. In concept it may be emotional and complex but it's an easy, engaging read covering a life of disruption and vengeance that's far from unique. This is not just writing as entertainment (and it is very entertaining) but also an interpretation of the gangster mind that the media like to lump under the all-embracing brand of 'criminal' when perhaps it would be more profitable to look at the individual rather than the label.
I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.
If you've enjoyed this and would like to read more about Ghanaian culture in the UK, try Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman.
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