Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: After The Night by Rachel Dax

After The Night by Rachel Dax is a historical romance. In the 1950s or 60s in England , a quiet, good girl called Leah Webster takes a job in the formidable Deepdown women's prison, where she encounters the stern, remote warden, Jean McFarlane.

Amongst the drama of prison, which comes with built in drama, it turns out that she isn't quite so perfect and that Jean is actually pretty sweethearted lady, with tragedy behind her, and the two get swept up in romance. Unfortunately, this is at a time when homosexuality was still officially illegal, providing an unpleasant counterpoint to their desire.

This was actually a pretty good story. I reread it nearly a year later, because I never got around to reviewing it, and it held up very well to a second reading. Probably a good pick for reading while waiting for the next Orange is the New Black episode.

Setting & Characters

Set in the fictional Deepdown prison, After The Night is actually written as a sequel to the film, and book, Yield to the Night (1956) by Joan . Featuring the last days of Mary Hilton and her confidant and warden, Officer McFarlane, the film features subtle lesbian subtext; the book is much more overt about it!

The setting was pretty lesbian friendly in some ways, as many of the women were lesbian, likely to be in a lesbian relationship, or at least used to quietly ignoring such things. It was also extremely threatening, in other ways, as some of the prison staff were blatant bad guys, who had been carrying out a campaign of violence against women showing "same sex affection". But the sheltered, artificial, prison environment allowed the women to keep their socially unacceptable behaviours somewhat private, and insulated them from the general prejudices of the outside world.

Leah is very much a normal, working girl. She's only at the prison to earn extra money for her marriage, she's quiet and good, pretty sheltered, and basically has her life planned out. This obviously falls apart pretty quickly, under the shock of being hit on, the drama of a dying girl and prison abuse, an attempted break out, and of course, her world-altering attraction to Jean.

Jean MacFarlane is reserved and competent, a kind, respected and tragic figure who has remained trapped by the loss of her first real love, a woman executed six years before. Protective of those in care, she is in direct opposition to the much harsher Young, her opponent for a prestigious and important job that would force her to deal with any future condemned prisoners. She is incredibly lonely, and when she starts opening up, forms very strong emotional attachments to other characters. Her semi-adoption and close care of a desperately ill, abused girl, opens her up to implications of improper behaviour. She is also very self sacrificing, prepared to give up Leah, despite the pain, so that Leah could live whatever life she chose.

The secondary characters were generally well rounded and believable, though easily categorised into bad guys and good. Most of them were women, as it was mostly set in the women's prison. Notable names include the very out and dykey Marge Thomas, who freely hit on every young woman that walked past; the lovely permanent resident and suffragette, old Mrs Simms; the rich and nasty Alexandra King; the foul mouthed and homophobic Ruth Green; the cast of thuggish wardens, the stern, yet compassionate, Governor; the efficient and motherly matron; the cheerful, friendly lesbian couple on staff; Leah's normal, working class parents; her boyfriend, and of course, the fragile, childlike Amy.

Basic Story
The basic storyline is that of the two women getting to know each other, and being forced into a much closer dependence by a series of other events. The prison has several events of significance and drama, mostly underpinned by the homophobic bullying of some of the staff, which triggers hospitalisation and investigations, as well as showing up just how important it is that Jean takes the promotion she fears.

Leah is generally swept up in these events, in a trial by fire at her new and terrifying job, while also coming out to herself, and eventually, her family. Her mother disowns her, along with hysterics and disgust, but her father does his best to support her, desperate to avoid driving her to suicide or losing her some other way, and Leah discovers that her wider family has some colourful, supportive allies in it. She also has sex with her fiance, proving to herself that she really, really doesn't like men that way, and leading to some unintended consequences.

The Romance
The attraction between the two women wasn't instant, but happened very quickly, as they were forced into each other's company by various emergencies and their roles. Jean was very much the distant protector, who seems much older than she is. Her struggle is mostly to accept that she is allowed to love again, and learning to let go of her lost love. Once that happens, she gladly throws her whole being in with Leah, much to her own personal anguish as she waits to discover what Leah will do.

Leah is initially mainly concerned with realising that yes, she is attracted to women, or at least one woman, that her betrothal is probably not going to work, that she really doesn't like sex with men, and that she's going to have to deal with her parents. Once she figures out that she doesn't have a hope of not loving Jean, she commits herself pretty thoroughly (possibly a little too quickly to be believable, but it's obvious that as she'd never really considered the idea seriously, she also had no practiced distaste to overcome). At least, she commits her heart. Outwardly, she spends a lot of time handling her family, or distancing herself while trying to protect herself and Jean from society and the eyes of those around them.

They start having sex pretty quickly, discovering a passionate desire for each other, but it's nongraphic, and mostly of the feelings and touchings style of writing. I didn't quite find it fit into the more reserved tone of the story overall, but we did need to see that they actually wanted each other and got on together in a relaxed setting (especially as they were planning to live together!)

Grammar stuff and Nitpicks
There were definitely a few too many proofreading issues; mostly spellcheck errors and really random commas that interrupted sentences (a writing quirk or an error of a grammar checker, I guess). The language felt a little stilted and dated sometimes, but that actually the suited the book, as it was supposed to be set in the 1950s or 60s. But there were far too many mistakes overall. It wasn't horrible and immersion destroying, but it was high enough to be irritating.

The length and pacing is decent. There are a the occasional events, or twists, that I found a bit forced; Leah's breakdown, for example, and the frantic speed of disasters, but they made the speed of the romance more believable.

Historical Accuracy
The prison was fictional, a women's prison in Berkshire, England. However, frequent references were made to historical events and a real prison, Holloway. The death penalty, execution and imprisonment of women condemned, and the controversy around this, were major parts of the story. It was heavily based on the story by Joan Henry, who also published accounts of life in prison.

At the time of telling, the death penalty is still around, but is dying out, to be abolished entirely soon after the book is set. Deepdown does not usually hold condemned prisoners, but still has a death wing, in case the cell at Holloway is full, and it casts a shadow over much of the story.

I'm not quite sure, but based on some Wikipedia-ing, it looks as if the author has done their research and then fictionalised names, dates, and some of the events, so that the story feels real, but doesn't actually clash with anything in particular. Mary, executed before the story starts, bears a great deal of similarity to the last woman executed in England, Ruth Ellis. But she is never claimed as the 'last' woman to be executed, that is left ambiguous.This is one reason I'm not quite sure of the dates, as I think many of the events referred to took place in the '50s, but have been shifted into the '60s (or vice versa). Many of the other characters, like Amy Hodgkins and dear old Mrs Simms could also have been based on very real people.

The prison itself, and its workings, feels very authentic, as does the wider society, from the public transport system to the phones. As mentioned, the language 'feels' appropriate, so even if it actually isn't, it draws you into the book very well and helps set the scene.

For more about how the story came about, this guest post by the author discusses her influences. Specifically, it was based on the story Yield To The Night. (Which was set in 1954, based on later events, which helps explain some of the timeline confusion; essentially, this book sets the time and setting for After The Night).

Decriminalisation of Homosexuality
One of the really fascinating things about the time and the setting is that it was right on the cusp of change, a few years before homosexuality began to be decriminalised. Society, and the people in the book, are split between socially acceptable disgust, and tolerance. Lesbian sexual acts were never illegal, but were considered punishable activity in a women's prison. But the very nature of a woman's prison led to a great deal of situational lesbianism.

One of the main plotlines involved the tension between this acceptance and lack of acceptance; lesbian affairs were common in women's prisons, both genuine and comfort based. While some of the staff quietly understood the unusual situation, the lack of privacy and the need to pair up, and others were a lot more than sympathetic, being secretly lesbian themselves, there were the rampant homophobes. And the actual rules of the prison. Outside the prison, most people had barely even heard of, much less approved of, the dreaded "inverts".

It's really interesting seeing the balanced struggle within the protected confines of the prison walls, safely contained and hidden from the rest of the world.

It also mirrors the shifting attitudes and generational-ish struggle between the current harsh prison regime and death penalty, and a shift towards rehabilitation and humane treatment.

Despite all the factual elements and serious analysis, it's an easy read and an enjoyable romance. While everything works out for our main characters, and their friends, they usually have to work for it enough to make it satisfying.

After The Night is currently only available as an eBook for Kindle from Amazon. 

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  1. Thank you very much for this positive and thorough review!
    Rachel Dax

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