Book review: ‘Inside These Walls’ by Rebecca Coleman

Inside These WallsClara 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!

Pub: Jan. 1, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Kingdom of Childhood’ by Rebecca Coleman

Middle-aged kindergarten teacher Judy McFarland is caught in a loveless marriage when she first meets Zach Patterson, a 16-year-old student at the Waldorf school where she teaches. Something about Zach — his unassuming masculinity; his teasing manner; his mischievous eyes — reminds her of a young man she knew during her turbulent childhood in Germany, and her draw to Zach is all-encompassing.

Judy justifies what she’s doing as a sort of temporary insanity, then rationalizes that if Zach didn’t like spending time with her, he wouldn’t. But as the intensity of their trysts increases and Judy begins to take it all too far, her desperation to emerge from the potential scandal unscathed — and her fear over losing her teen lover completely — may end in tragedy.

Rebecca Coleman’s The Kingdom of Childhood is an explosive, dynamic and horrifying look at how completely unhinged one woman becomes in her quest to rekindle the innocence — the purity, maybe — of her childhood. In doing so, she seduces a teenage boy — a friend of her own son — and uses him for her immodest gains.

Or does she?

There are no easy answers in Coleman’s debut novel, which is equal parts fascinating and horrifying. More than once I could only scan the pages with my jaw hitting my chest, wondering how in the world this woman was so sick and delusional. Coleman does an outstanding job of building Judy’s world into something we both understand and don’t understand. After a tumultuous and disenchanting childhood as an American child in Germany, Judy’s perception of love and sex are already skewed. But I didn’t think she was this messed up.

When The Kingdom of Childhood opens, it’s obvious that Judy is an unsettled and unsettling character — but I had no idea the breadth of her slanted moral compass. It’s a true testament to Coleman’s skill as a writer that I shifted from feeling empathy toward Judy to being absolutely disgusted by her, and by the close of the novel I wanted nothing more than to slap her myself. Maybe Zach is screwed up, too, but he’s a boy. A teenage boy. A boy who knows little about love than what he’s seen himself, and his own pull to Judy might have begun as a game . . . but it certainly doesn’t end that way.

As Judy sends her own daughter off to college and prepares for her son to leave, too, she questions her dwindling role in others’ lives. Judy’s eldest daughter gets on a wavering path toward religion and summarily rejects every Waldorf principle she was taught growing up, and it’s obvious this wounds Judy to the core. The Waldorf principle of learning, it seems, is this: provide for children an unsullied, magical experience in their formative years. Protect them from harm. Encourage them to pursue artistic talents and become individuals. Allow them to remain innocent from the world’s ills for as long as possible, even if this means encouraging a belief in something like fairies. When Judy’s daughter turns her back on her entire upbringing, Judy feels like she’s rejecting her.

And she doesn’t want to feel like dirty laundry. Like someone’s second best. When Russ, her distant and overbearing husband, finds himself working more on his thesis than spending time with his family, Judy becomes lonely and distracted and cold. Does that excuse her involvement with Zach? Absolutely not. But initially, at least, I felt sorry for her.

But then there was the sex. It’s at the heart of this book, really — but it’s not just the physical act that drives Coleman’s characters. It’s our carnal desire to take someone and be taken, or the obsession humans feel with wanting to “possess” another. Having intimate knowledge of another feels like our ultimate bond with them, and both Judy and Zach are obsessed with possessing others. Or maybe trying to fully possess themselves. But while Zach is a teenage boy prone to . . . well, to teenage boy fantasies, Judy is a grown and disillusioned woman who more than knew better.

I don’t know when the entire novel began to take on a sinister edge, but I’m pretty sure it’s around the time Russ began divulging some of Judy’s secrets. I was fascinated by Coleman’s ability to seamlessly shift narrative voices, and when her husband started to expose her, I realized that Judy’s narration wasn’t at all reliable. With the introduction of fire and certain characters’ obsessions with it, I actually started trembling.

This is a dark, fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking story — the kind I don’t think I’ll ever forget. While it was often hard to read, I tore through it like I was on fire myself. I don’t know if it’s the sort of story you love, only because it centers on such a disturbing subject matter, but Rebecca Coleman has created an unforgettable tale about infidelity, love and obsession.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 077831278X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonBook Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

The book you’ll be talking about: ‘The Kingdom of Childhood’

Tomorrow you’ll find my look at the most explosive, controversial, disturbing and incredibly well-written book I’ve read in quite a while: Rebecca Coleman’s The Kingdom of Childhood. Coleman is a fellow graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park — and has my same degree: a B.A. in English Literature! So if I didn’t already think she was awesome, I learned she is also a Terp.

In celebration of The Kingdom of Childhood’s release, I’m happy to share a teaser from the work readers everywhere will be talking about very soon. The story of a fiery, passionate affair between a teacher and 16-year-old boy — but so much beyond that, too — I have a feeling this one will be on the lips of many this fall.

As I had done before, I dropped off Scott at home with an excuse that I needed to stop at the grocery store across town. Once we pulled away from the house, Zach said, “I don’t think he’s going to buy that one much longer.”

“He doesn’t care. He isn’t paying attention.”

The side of Zach’s mouth twisted with doubt. “I wouldn’t be too sure. That’s probably what my mother thought, too.”

Head over to Songberries on Wednesday for the next teaser from The Kingdom of Childhood, and pop in tomorrow for my review of this surprising book.