For the Last Time, by Janet Kelly, puts the reader inside the head of a convicted murderer. Although authors have done this before often the protagonist is a psychopath or sociopath. In this story he is as much a victim as many of those who suffer due to his deeds.
It is not a comfortable read for those of us fortunate enough to lead comfortable lives. It is worthy of scrutiny for this challenge alone, to consider how others struggle against circumstances over which they have limited control, against the tide of prejudice peddled by the media and those in power.
When the story opens Alan is reaching the end of the fourteen years imprisonment he has served of the life term he was sentenced to for murder. His long term cell mate, Trevor, has just been released into the loving arms of his family, who waited for him whilst he was doing his time inside. Alan has no such prospects.
As he recovers from the loss of the friend with whom he talked during their many years of incarceration he mulls over what led to him being where he is.
Raised by a negligent mother and abusive step father Alan’s first experience of regular meals and any form of physical care was when he was first locked up in a juvenile detention centre for assaulting a fellow pupil at their school. It was while detained that he met his future boss, who became the leader of a team of petty criminals. By the time Alan was recruited he had a wife and child to support. Theirs was not a happy marriage but Alan felt a deep seated need to provide for his family, whatever that took.
Much of the story is written in the first person. Thus we see how damaged Alan was as a child and why the authorities failed to protect him. By locking him away as a teenager they improved his health but, with a criminal record to declare, ensured that he could never find a job that paid more than a pittance. A life of crime could at least be lucrative, and he felt he had no other choice if he was to survive.
Alan escaped into books earning him derision from his wife. He had learned young how to keep his head down, protect himself and not dob others in. With limited options his life followed an almost inevitable path.
The commentary on the support services offered were discomforting to read. The liberal minded do-gooders who felt so worthy in their attempts to help the feckless poor were despised. The comments on those who urged Alan to, for example, spend his money on gym membership rather than booze and cigarettes were enlightening. How easy it is to judge those leading a life the detail of which will never be experienced.
This tale is timely given the way current government is trying to punish the poor for their supposed lack of effort in raising themselves to achieve a better way of living. It offers few answers other than more compassion and empathy. It recognises that there are many who are feckless, chancers, criminally minded; but points out that those who try for a better life struggle against a strong tide of disapprobation on all sides.
A powerful read that asks the reader hard questions and rejects the commonly offered answers and platitudes. Alan was highly intelligent, capable of love despite never experiencing it for himself. Those born into privilege are no more deserving of their good fortune than he was at the other end of the spectrum. Who can say for certain how they would act if roles were reversed? Alan was incarcerated by circumstance as much as by prison walls.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.