Clara Mattingly was a young woman when she fell in love with a doomed man. Broken from a family life teeming with secrets and searching for warmth, Clara slowly succumbs to the gentle advances of fellow dreamer Ricky Rowan.
Getting into a series of scrapes that grow in violence and intensity, Clara and Ricky are eventually imprisoned for murder — and when we meet her, Clara is in her forties and served decades of her life sentence. To remember the responsible young woman she once was — that aspiring artist with dreams, a life, a future — is to risk heartbreak again and again. She can’t think of Ricky, can’t think of their terrible tearing apart; can’t think of what could have happened if she’d done something — anything — differently one night so long ago.
Instead, Clara focuses on the mundane details of her day-to-day existence with her blind cellmate, finding joy in her work interpreting classic art into braille and trying to avoid the hard-eyed stares of her fellow prisoners. Surviving in a women’s prison — especially as a high-profile inmate — isn’t easy.
When an unexpected visitor appears, Clara’s acceptance of life within her narrow walls is challenged — and for the first time, she begins to wonder what it would be like to step back out into the sunshine. To never take her freedom for granted again. As she calls forth memories and truths from a time she’d considered best left forgotten, nothing can be the same.
Rebecca Coleman’s Inside These Walls is absorbing, compelling, incredibly detailed and very well-drawn. It was the sort of story that prompted me to email the author immediately after finishing, so eager was I to express my crazy mixed bag of emotions at everything that came to pass.
Clara is a character you don’t feel you should like (being a convicted killer and all), but we get the sense there’s more to her story than court documents and a sensational Lifetime movie have shown. She’s so empathetic, quiet and introspective that we bond with her immediately, reliving her ill-fated romance with Ricky and getting the saga of their inevitable downfall in bits and pieces. As Clara’s tale unravels, it’s hard not to feel incredibly sad for her. As the story’s narrator, she guides us through the truths and half-truths and lies as she retreads old territory, and I found myself feeling . . . very protective of her.
Ricky was a sonuvabitch and all, but I also couldn’t help but feel for the man. Clara describes the young Ricky, the romantic Ricky, the Ricky who plucked her from a tumultuous home life and restored her faith in love. Though never excusing their actions, Coleman does an admirable job of explaining the deep and complicated affection Clara felt for Ricky, her first love — but also their obsessive dependency and blind devotion to one another. It was disturbing and realistic and painful, but also completely compelling.
Given the novel takes place within a prison, it would be easy to tire of Clara’s pinhole world — but Coleman takes us so deeply into the mind and heart of her narrator, I never felt bored or claustrophobic. Quite the opposite, in fact. Through her memories and confessional chats with a friendly Catholic priest, we’re privy to such a complicated, emotional back story that I had to keep reminding myself of all that actually came to pass.
This book was awesome. Up-til-3-a.m. awesome.
Fans of contemporary fiction and prison dramas as well as bold, complicated characters will find much to love in Coleman’s latest. Clara isn’t a character I’ll soon forget, and I love that Inside These Walls drops us at the beginning of a new era. I was very satisfied with the ending . . . and only wish I could have stayed with Clara a little longer.
4.5 out of 5!