Ray, Serena and Nathan, director, producer and presenter from the BBC arrive at the Ashwer compound in India:
Around fifty dwellings faced each other in four huddled rows, separated by low fences roughly hewn from thick branches and stuffed with straw, leading to a tall iron water pump. Some homes were built of brick or stone, but many were not – their walls were made from the same corrugated sheet metal that formed the roof of other accommodation, long gaps visible at the joints.
Ashwer is an open prison. All its inmates are serving life for murder. ‘Crimes of passion, property and personal vengeance.’
…everyone is free to come and go as they please. In twenty years, not a single inmate has reoffended and only one person has attempted to escape.
Ray has won a commission from the BBC to film an episode for a series presenting “a ‘non-judgemental slice of life inside the prison system’ “. She arrives with the intention of making an ‘ethical and empathetic…documentary film’. Soon after her arrival, Ray meets Nandini, an inmate who works as a counselor for other prisoners. Nandini becomes Ray’s guide to Ashwar, a place that she might otherwise find difficult to infiltrate:
‘You think they need to be on ‘good behaviour’ for this place to work?’ said Ray.
‘It is not about this place working, it is about you being here.’
As the novel progresses, Ray and the team begin to discover more about the inmates – what specifically was their crime; how they feel about living in Ashwar – and their families (partners and children are expected to live with the prisoners as part of their rehabilitation). But then an email comes from London and Ray has to consider what’s more important: making good television or maintaining her ethical stance.
The Village pits the inhabitants of Ashwar against the BBC team: who has higher morals? Those who murder to protect themselves or those who manipulate in pursuit of a good story? Who behaves better? Those who have murdered and are now behaving in a manner allowing them to live in an open prison or those who drink, smoke dope and have casual sex?
It seems as though the answers to those questions would be obvious but Lalwani is cleverer than that, particularly with the way she uses the BBC team. There are tensions throughout between Ray and Serena, while Nathan, an ex-convict himself, makes the reader think more carefully about what an ex-offender could and should be entitled to once they’ve served their sentence.
The Village is a thought-provoking novel that is deceptively easy to read. I say deceptively as anything that seems so easy is very well crafted indeed.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.
The Village is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. From the website:
Fiction Uncovered creates the opportunity for eight British fiction writers (novels, short stories, graphic novels) to be part of a major promotion supported by retailers, and a major publicity and marketing campaign.
This year’s titles are:
All The Beggers Riding – Lucy Caldwell
How I Killed Margaret Thatcher – Anthony Cartwright
Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden
The Village – Nikita Lalwani
The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon
The Heart Broke In – James Meek
Orkney – Amy Sackville
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson