Today I’m sharing my review of The Binding Song by Elodie Harper, a really haunting book set in a prison. I listened to the audio of this book on one of my recent trips up to Scotland and was immediately drawn into the story which has been described as ‘splendidly unsettling’ by none other than John Connolly. Before we hear my thoughts, let’s take a look at what the book is all about.
The Official Book Blurb
FROM THE WINNER OF THE STEPHEN KING AND GUARDIAN SHORT STORY COMPETITION.
A chilling debut for fans of Mo Hayder and Sharon Bolton, THE BINDING SONG takes you on a trip to Halvergate Prison. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to leave…
‘Splendidly unsettling’ John Connolly
Dr Janet Palmer is the new lead psychologist at HMP Halvergate in a remote, bleak area of Norfolk. At first, she was excited by the promotion. Then she starts to see how many secrets are hiding behind the high walls.
A string of inmates have committed suicide, leaving no reasons why, and her predecessor has disappeared – along with his notes. The staff are hostile, the threat of violence is ever-present, and there are rumours of an eyeless woman stalking the corridors, punishing the inmates for their sins.
Janet is determined to find out what is really going on. But the longer she stays and the deeper she digs, the more uncertain she feels.
Halvergate is haunted by something. But it may be a terror worse than ghosts…
From the very beginning, there is a sense of otherworldliness about this book. Something that gets under your skin and sets the nerve endings tingling. A sinister, almost malevolent presence that inhabits the very heart and soul of the story. John Connolly is right. The book is unsettling, but in the most haunting and beautiful way.
The story opens with a young man, Ryan who is on the run. Who or what he is running from is not immediately clear, but he is a man on edge with a fear of being discovered. Whilst trying to get away, he sees a woman heading off into the dense woodland of the Thetford Forest and starts to follow her. He knows, as does the reader, that there is something not quite right about the woman, and the more he follows the more the sense of foreboding grows. When he finally confronts her, he realises the mistake he has made. That the very thing which he was running from will be the last thing he sees…
From there on in, the hint of something supernatural, something not quite of this world, becomes a constant theme throughout the novel. The idea of the ‘Lady of Halvergate’ or ‘the white visitor’, a woman who haunts the prison driving the convicted sex offenders to their ultimate end. There is no proof of this woman other than the dreams of the convicts, something which can easily be dismissed by the use of legal highs which seems to be rife in the prison. Certainly the powers that be wish for the talk of drugs and white ladies to end and would, it seems, do almost anything to make that happen.
What they had not counted on was the new lead psychologist, Janet Palmer. She is not so easily dismissed as other members of staff, not so easily persuaded to cover up the wrong doings in the prison. Her highly tuned mind knows that there is far more to the sudden resignation of her predecessor than meets the eye. But investigating could not only cost her job, but also her life.
This was a most unusual book in that I am not certain if I truly warmed to the central character of Janet, although I was absolutely invested in her finding the truth. She is a very troubled woman, her past haunting her in untold ways and her present sullied by taking the job at Halvergate. It ultimately costs her her relationship just when she needs the support the most. Thankfully she has a friend in new prison Pastor, Steven, who is also finding it hard to settle in this most unusual of environments. It seems almost as if it is them against the rest of the staff, and when faced with some hardened criminals, the last thing you want is to make an enemy of your colleagues. And yet this is exactly what Janet seems to do, her persistent nature setting her against almost everyone from the start.
I really liked Steven. He was down to earth, not ready to accept the idea of a supernatural presence within the prison, the manifestation of evil, no matter – or perhaps because of – his faith. But he also had a natural instinct for when things were going wrong and was so very supportive of Janet, regardless of the madness she appeared to engage in. He is a man who is not without his own doubts and fears, most surrounding the impact of his job upon personal relationships. But, like others, he is quick to take the true measure of one of the inmates, Michael Donovan, a man who lacks any remorse for his crimes and whose ability to manipulate those around him makes him a dangerous foe.
To my mind, Donovan was much like a Hannibal Lecter character. Not in that the ate his victims, although his crime was a true demonstration of the evil nature within him. More that he had an unnerving charm, so outwardly cool and controlled but with laced with the knowledge that he had the ability to snap at a moments notice. He became somewhat of a challenge to Janet, constantly hinting at his knowledge of the ‘white visitor’ and all that she stands for, and of the truth of what happened to her predecessor, Dr Helkin. You can feel the energy between them in every scene, the tension and the smug knowledge that exists within Donovan. But nobody could be prepared for the startling revelations which are yet to come, ones which will lead to a final, highly dramatic showdown between Janet and Donovan.
It’s so hard to put into words how this book makes you feel. From the oppressive atmosphere of the prison which has been captured brilliantly in the prose, the constant underlying threat of violence which only occasionally bubbles to the surface, or the dank climate and depressive environment in which Janet lives, everything combines perfectly to unnerve the reader, to keep them on edge. It keeps you guessing as to how much of the story is true and how much a kind of group hallucination, one which you as reader are also being sucked into. From the passages where Janet is nearly attacked by an inmate, to those in which she allows her mind to drift back to the past, you are always left with that feeling of unease, that knowledge that something is gradually building and that nothing can stop it. Does the white visitor merely represent all of the rage, anger and guilt which exists in that most neglected of environments or is it more than that? Is she a spectre, truly terrorising the halls of Halverston, reaping a kind of revenge from which there can be no escape.
Possibly one of the most chilling and atmospheric books I have read this year, I can’t quite believe this was a debut novel. I’ll certainly be looking for more by this author in future. In the meantime you can get a copy of the book from the following retailers:
Elodie Harper will be appearing at First Monday Crime in November You can book tickets to hear Elodie and three other fabulous authors in conversation with Barry Forshaw, and learn more about First Monday Crime, at their website here.