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A captivating insight to a world worth avoiding
on 19 September 2013
Anyone spending any time online during 2013 will have struggled not to notice a TV series called 'Orange is the New Black', which was the most viewed show commissioned by Netflix (a comedy filmed by Lionsgate) during the year. I had a holiday coming up as autumn approached and for a whole bunch of reasons went straight for Piper Kerman's original book, on which the TV series was based. Which for the sake of clarity will make you smile but unlike the show isn't written for laughs.
Piper Kerman comes from a middle-class family, is smart, well educated, is a pretty blond with blue eyes and possessed of a love for male and female partners. She also has an irresistible bohemian itch that leads her on all kinds of adventures and ultimately to jail.
During her mid-twenties she couriered drugs money as a favour and to pay a debt to a long term partner. She was arrested for the crime years later, when the drug syndicate collapsed and her ex-partner gave her name up as part of a deal. More than half a decade after being found guilty and being sentenced, Piper finally ends up in jail. The main focus of the story covers her thirteen months in jail.
The quality of the novel is that most educated, relatively law abiding citizens, will relate to Piper. She is a largely innocent everywoman, catapulted into the American penal system. And before anyone gets bent out of shape on the question of innocence - if you see this modern world in the black and white of right and wrong, the good and bad, then read on, this book might open your eyes.
Aside from the sincerity and lightness of touch in Piper's writing, the human story is what shines through. Piper waves away her fiancee and middle-class life, some ten years after her freely admitted crime, and goes from citizen to con, keeping her head down and trying to stay out of trouble. As she eases into life inside we meet a wide number of characters and rather than the violence you might expect, we are treated to people trying their best to deal with an inhumanity inflicted on them by the system, the size of the system and the futility of jailing people who have few choices in life but to return to that life. It is the interaction of the characters and Piper's enigmatic attempts to deal with these new experiences and the people who change her, that makes this such a captivating read.
The last time I read a book that felt this honest and insightful was Belle de Jour, for completely different reasons. There is a very compelling and perceived sincerity in the detail of every page that doesn't sensationalise the reality. The focus here is on the human, a very female story, captivating for its raw honesty.
Orange is the New Black is a rare book that has you experience the story, laugh and cry with the characters. We turn the last page grateful it wasn't us but also better for the shared experience.
Very highly recommended. I hope this review was helpful.