A New England women’s prison is changed forever when a misguided warden comes into power in this debut novel.
Prisoner Iris Engels is a criminal defense attorney and pro bono counsel to her fellow inmates at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution for Women in Connecticut when a new warden, Camellia Coleman, comes into power. As part of an effort to please the warden and protect her own personal interests—specifically, obtaining citizenship for her immigrant roommate, Emilia Rivera—Iris hatches a plan to convince inmate Desiree Johansson, a small-town Iowa girl, to become an informant. Later, when Ottilla Cassidy, Desiree’s childhood friend, is admitted into the prison, Iris believes that the new girl’s history could be valuable to her. The novel also explores subgroups of the prison social structure, such as the vivacious Colombian community, and it portrays a rich prison economy in which seemingly everything, including sanitary pads and Wet ‘n Wild lipsticks, has multiple purposes. The makeup of the prison environment is similar to that in the Netflix TV series Orange Is the New Black, and it’s unclear whether it’s intentionally mirroring aspects of that show. The narrative truly comes into its own, though, when it focuses primarily on the interpersonal dynamics between the characters in prison; at one point, when the warden asks why a group of prisoners is so cheerful at lunchtime, Iris responds, “a lot of these ladies are violence-free for the first time in their lives.” Many plot developments are keenly observed and the momentum ramps up on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last. That said, Iris’ motivation to sabotage prisoners’ lives for her own benefit seems foggy, at best; even when her reasons are revealed, it doesn’t seem to justify her actions. Also, the problematic portrayal of Ottilla’s character does little to combat insidious transgender stereotypes, as it’s revealed that she was only transitioning in order to join an all-male gang and that she regretted doing so after a religious epiphany.
A compelling but flawed tale of prison betrayals.