"I can think of no gentle way to begin."
So starts Keith Hollihans's wonderful debut novel. Nor does the book end gently. In fact, there's not a lot of gentleness throughout. This isn't to say that the violence isn't mitigated by quiet moments and occasionally profound insight into the human condition, because it is.
Nor is it to say that the violence isn't narratively warranted. It absolutely is. But the novel deals entirely with life in a maximum-security prison. To deny the violence inherent in such a setting, or to gloss over it, is to cheat the reader - and worse, not to trust the reader - with the story that needs telling.
The novel's protagonist, Kali Williams, is a middle-aged corrections officer in the prison, who gets sucked into an intricate plot dealing with a criminal organization that has taken control of the jail. She tries hard to stay on the right side of the law, even while all around her corruption blooms, blurring the line between inmate and prison guard.
She's a tough woman, and Hollihan, a Canadian living in the United States, draws her very well, never devolving into clichéd, over-the-top cop-show lines or obvious shorthand to hammer into the reader that we're dealing with a real bad-ass. Her character - just like that of the rest of the novel's cast - is revealed through sharp dialogue and the natural unfolding of the plot.
The inmates Kali deals with are the hardest of the hard. Brutal, uncompromising, calculating, vicious. Completely self-absorbed and only interested in furthering their own agendas. Yet, astonishingly - and for nearly the entire book - I found myself genuinely liking them. Hollihan gives the reader fascinating insight into how maximum-security prisons function, without resorting to painful info dumps. And it's through these descriptions of daily life that we come to understand, at least to some extent, the prisoners' motivations. When they are stripped of their crimes, and setting their pasts aside, the personalities behind the monsters become apparent. And that's what grabs you, makes you care about them - sometimes more than you care about the "good guys."
What really propels the novel is the ambiguity, the blurriness of the line between inmate and guard. Hollihan handles character development so well that - as the intricacies of the criminal plot are gradually revealed - the reader genuinely has no idea where the story is going. Because to predict an outcome, we need to have a sense of what lines each character likely won't cross, and we never get that. Hollihan refuses to give it to us, which is a brilliant example of narrative control.
My only complaint is that it took nearly a third of the novel for me to become fully invested. This doesn't mean that the book isn't engaging for the first 100 pages. It's strongly written, and there are enough tidbits of intrigue to keep the reader going, though it does wander a little in the first third. But from around page 130 on, it goes from interesting to captivating to intense to absolutely rocket-propelled. Until the shocking final scenes, which, quite frankly, had me sitting in my chair, jaw dropped, staring at the page in horror and wonder - horror because of the events, and wonder because of the plotting and writing skills Hollihan clearly possesses.
Powerful, articulated, mesmerizing and filled with startling moments of insight into what separates people from monsters - not much at all - The Four Stages of Cruelty is a resonant powerhouse of a novel.
Novelist Keith Hollihan reads from The Four Stages of Cruelty at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre on Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m., with Andrew Pyper and Roberta Rich ( www.harbourfrontcentre.com).
Brett Alexander Savory is a writer, editor and publisher. He is the author of In and Down, and co-publisher of ChiZine Publications.