Written by Nikki Owen — Written by a Dublin-born author who now lives in Gloucestershire, this debut novel is the first in the planned Project trilogy. The action begins inside a British women’s prison. By any standard Dr Maria Martinez is just a little bit different. First, she is a native of the ancient city of Salamanca, but has been working as a plastic surgeon in Britain. Secondly, she suffers from profound Asperger’s Syndrome. Thirdly, she finds herself starting a long sentence in HM Prison Goldmouth, convicted of the brutal killing of a Roman Catholic priest.
We see, hear and smell the brutalising world of a women’s prison through Maria’s eyes. The guards are unthinking and uncaring about her mental state, and her difficulties in social perception and interpreting language. Like Maria, we are not sure who we can trust. Are the therapist, Kurt, and the seemingly kind Dr Anderson who they seem to be? What, exactly, is the relationship between the prison governor and Maria’s mother and brother?
One particular fellow inmate seems determined to bully Maria and to inflict as much hurt on her as possible, but the intervention of a sympathetic cell-mate provides a degree of protection. As Maria undergoes more therapy, she struggles to make sense of time and place, and tries to replay the events which led to her trial and conviction. She suffers hallucinations, but as she attempts to distinguish between reality and fantasy, a tiny worm of truth begins to form, and it slowly dawns on her that she may be the victim of a very clever conspiracy, and that the upside of her Asperger’s Syndrome – the ability to work with terrifying accuracy and speed with numbers and code – has somehow been harnessed by persons unknown.
In her moments of clarity, Maria is able to petition for a retrial, and her new barrister is convinced that the speed with which she was initially convicted doesn’t ring true. He has uncovered new evidence that the DNA samples which were crucial to the original trial were flawed, and he has strong suspicions that evidence given by nuns from a convent near to where the priest was killed is similarly unreliable. Maria herself is beginning to wonder if both the attacks on her in prison – and the efforts of others to protect her – are both the product of external agencies with a very sinister agenda.
First person narrative in crime novels can be a double-edged sword. What is gained in terms of immediacy and intensity of observation can easily be lost by the narrowness of only seeing the action through the pin-hole of a single viewpoint. It’s one thing to view the world through the eyes of a Philip Marlowe or a Spenser. By and large we trust their judgments, and when they make mistakes, we can nod sympathetically as we think, ‘Yes – been there, and done that.’ In this case, however, Wayne C Booth‘s theory of the unreliable narrator comes into play. If Maria Martinez isn’t sure what she is seeing, then how are we supposed to know what is going on?
Just as Maria’s nightmare world seems to be morphing into a more prosaic setting – in this case the courtroom at her retrial – the author throws in yet another seemingly parallel narrative which, initially, is even more confusing. Was this happening before or after the trial? Was it real, or was it induced by Maria’s handlers injecting her with yet another syringe full of perception-bending chemicals? These two threads finally resolve, in a manner of speaking, but this daring and ambitious idea on the part of the author doesn’t always work.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars