The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry

What if you only had 12 hours left to live, and you were shut up in a room with only one other person – a stranger – what would you have to say? This is the premise behind Michelle Berry’s most recent novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain. The Prisoner is on death row for his crimes, and he has requested to spend his last hours with the Chaplain. The question of what they would have to say to each other kept me completely engrossed in this story.

The conversation doesn’t go the way the Chaplain expects it to; he thought there would be a lot of repenting, and maybe some protesting against his circumstances. But the Prisoner just wants to tell his story and have someone listen.

He imagined thrown furniture, screaming, crying, begging, pleading, anger, remorse, fear. He imagined telephone calls to loved ones, last minute appeals, rooms full of people rushing about.

He isn’t confessing and he isn’t asking for forgiveness. It’s merely – this is my life, Listen. Then you can kill me.

But he’s not the only one with a story to tell. As the minutes tick by, the Prisoner tells his story. And as the Prisoner tells his story, the Chaplain reflects on his own imperfect life and what brought him to where he is today. If things had gone differently for him, it’s not too far off to imagine that he could have ended up where the Prisoner is today. Are they really so different?

The Chaplain knows more than anyone how easily things you don’t intend to happen can happen.

The Chaplain also has to come to terms with his job at a prison that supports the death penalty – something that he doesn’t believe in. And as he listens to the Prisoner’s story, he thinks about the unfairness of it all.

He wonders when the rain stopped. He remembers the storm only a few hours ago, how soaked he got getting his coffee. He remembers the smell in the air of the wet pavement steaming. The heat of the summer washing off. The feel of sunshine upon your face. He thinks of rain. Or snow. The Prisoner will have none of this ever again. So the Chaplain holds his hand as he rocks and tries not to think of the pain in his knees as he kneels down here, on the cold, hard floor of the cell, with the Prisoner now.

One of the things I like best about the story is the structure. Each chapter is an hour closer to the time of execution, and as the book goes on you feel the tension building as the Chaplain keeps his eye on the clock, dreading what’s to come. It feels like a thriller as we find out how the Prisoner’s story ends.

At times the Chaplain’s circling thoughts about guilt and execution feel repetitious, but I still strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject. Despite this minor fault, I found it captivating.

The Prisoner and the Chaplain explores guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, and forgiveness.

And now, I’m going to have to go back and read her other books.

Thank you to Wolsak and Wynn for sending me a copy of this book! The quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof.

Further Reading:

Michelle Berry owns her own book store in Peterborough, Ontario – Hunter Street Books.  (I hear it’s nice!)

Review at Pickle Me This: “The novel’s momentum starts strong and just keeps going and going, and then the ending packs a wallop. Make sure you set aside a good block hours before you start this book, because you’ll be needing every one of them.”

Hear Jael Richardson talk about it on CBC’s “q”

Review at Quill & Quire: “What she’s good at – excellent, in fact – is parcelling out terse little bits of description that fill the mind’s eye beyond their narrative function. The chaplain’s offhand observation that “there is no soap for the sink” says more about the cell’s status as a point of no return for its tenants than his anguished internal monologue on the subject.

Review at The Star: ““I was thinking about guilt and two people with different kinds of guilt being stuck together,” Berry says. “I’m really interested in structure, and wanted every hour to be a chapter and to see if I could even speed it up, so you get a sense of fastness to the story.

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32 thoughts on “The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry

  1. Grab the Lapels says:

    I like the sounds of the chapter structure! It’s hard to tell in the quotes, though: who is the narrator? It looks like it switches from “he” to “me” but means the same person.

    p.s. Thank for Q, Canadians!

    • Naomi says:

      I believe it’s third person all the way through. However, it’s the Chaplain whose thoughts we’re privy to rather than the Prisoner’s.

      Q is a good show! 🙂

  2. Penny says:

    Here’s another one I read about on Kerry’s blog and ran out and bought it from the publisher! That’s two awesome reviews for it – must read it soon!

    When can we just cram all the books into our brains?? So many books to read!! 😉

    • Naomi says:

      That’s always the big question around here… I don’t know how you like to get your books, but I’m pretty sure the Book Depository has it.

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read either of those, so I can’t say how they compare. But if you read this, you can let me know! 😉
      Actually, I think I would like Burial Rites.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! The interaction between the two men is fascinating – it feels very intimate.
      It had me thinking that we should all try sitting in a room with a stranger for 12 hours and see what happens. Or even with the people we know and love!

  3. FictionFan says:

    This sounds fascinating! It made me think of the old Jimmy Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces – very different except that it also revolves around a priest and a condemned man, and the crucial scene takes place in the cell before the execution. I find the whole concept of judicial killing pretty horrific, to be honest – what must it be like to know in advance the exact moment of your death? Must look out for this one…

    • Naomi says:

      The whole idea *is* fascinating. Maybe because it’s so far from anything we’ll experience (we hope!).
      I don’t want to give anything away, but one of the reasons the tension builds toward the end is wanting to know how the Prisoner is going to react as it gets closer to his time of death.
      One interesting thing pointed out in the book is how careful the guards have to be not to leave anything in the room that the Prisoner can harm himself with. And the Chaplain thinks “The irony of trying to stop someone from killing himself so that you can kill him yourself.” Apparently the waiting is so bad that some inmates would rather just take care of it themselves and get it over with!

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    This book reminds me of Robbery Under Arms, written in the late 19th century by Rolf Boldrewood. It tells the story of a man’s reflections as he awaits the death penalty, and like FictionFan in my review I commented on how the torment of knowing the hour of your death is one of the most cruel aspects of the death penalty. (See https://anzlitlovers.com/2009/09/06/robbery-under-arms-by-rolf-boldrewood-bookreview/)
    This book was written long before Australia abolished the death penalty in the 20th century, but it seemed to me that he was well ahead of his time in exploring ideas about remorse, repentance and guilt.

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, that sounds terrific! And like Dick in Robbery Under Arms, the Prisoner in this story also feels as though it was his fate to enter a life of crime – inescapable. Not much remorse there, either, for his robberies. And he just stole money for the endorphins, then kept it all in coffee cans.

  5. The Cue Card says:

    The author has her own bookstore? Now I’m really envious. I must visit this bookstore! There seems to be good tension in her story.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad it appeals. She’s written several books now and is becoming fairly well-known. Maybe she’ll make it onto the Giller list someday!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s definitely a great idea for a book. I was thinking it would be cool if several different writers took the same basic premise and created their own story. I wonder how different they would be.

  6. buriedinprint says:

    I was sure that I had read one of her books, but I can’t find it in my log. (You well know how this kind of thing can send one into a flurry which involves a library excursion and a concerted study of every one of her books to suss out the missing details!) Regardless, I’d missed the announcement of this one and the structure sounds fascinating indeed. Just the kind of thing I love. Thanks for adding another to my TBR!

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