‘The Fell’ Robert Jenkins
Red Door Press
‘The Fell’ starts with a burning hot summer and several suicides shown through the first person viewpoint of the unnamed narrator who has a summer job at the lido where his father is the foreman. In the copse at the back of the swimming pool, his father climbs a tree to cut down a man. The narrator observes, ‘Death close up is a cold and heartless hard bastard. Everyone should hate death. There ain’t no sweetness in death.’ However, after CPR, the man revives. When the ambulance arrives, the father swims a length and returns to the lifeguards’ hut without speaking to his son. It’s the summer where everything starts to go wrong.
The narrator’s older sister, Lilly, who is fifteen, happened to be with a friend when the friend shoplifted some lipstick. The police manhandled her friend (whom Lilly believed innocent at the time) and Lilly ended up stabbing him with a nail file, leading to her arrest. On their street, where police are generally unwelcome, she’s a hero. Their father goes to the police station and discovers Lilly has a black eye, broken wrist and split lip. She gets sentenced to 10 years in a juvenile detention centre.
In keeping with the narrator’s viewpoint, the novel skips forward to a scene where he’s put on a plane by social services and doesn’t know where he’s going. It’s a small plane so a regional flight and it’s this point readers realise the story’s set in America. Up to now, the story could be America/Britain. The narrator is met, ‘The lady who met me at the airport was short, fat and very round. She had short red hair with purple streaks over auburn and black and mauve and orange and yellow clothes all flowing like a torn-up tent and from a distance she looked like she was a little fat fire ball, and I was the only kid there so she made a thundering beeline for me.’ The woman wastes no time in making him feel unwelcome: she tells him he’s late, he shouldn’t have kept her waiting and throws his suitcase into the back of her car like it’s trash.
She takes him to Feallan House, nicked named The Fell by the resident boys. Nominally it’s a boarding school but neglect by the staff creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide and the boys develop a kinship along with a love of pranking the staff – setting off fire alarms and leaving gifts of defecation in or outside house staff rooms. One arrival, Moby loves but is allergic to shellfish so eats it outside the Emergency Room and ignores the nurses telling him it’s too dangerous. Some older boys share beds with younger boys (sometimes just a cuddle, sometimes more) to keep warm. In winter the dorms are not heated despite snow or frost outside and boys have to make do with meagre bedding. Johnny partners the narrator. The one warm note is that this is friendship, not abuse and doesn’t develop into a sexual relationship. The boys discover the narrator can swim. On Athletics Day, boys come back, having been mostly successful, and discover the housemasters have emptied all personal belongings from the dorms and insist that everyone cleans up and replaces things before dinner, which is cold by the time they get to eat it. This is not the only incident where a moment of glory or happiness is ruined by staff determined to keep the boys anxious and compliant, an approach doomed to backfire.
It takes a letter from Lilly before readers discover how the narrator wound up in a boarding school. One night the police try to arrest a neighbour, who is armed. Lilly and the narrator’s father tries to calm the situation. The neighbour fires a warning shot at the police (had he intended to shoot the police, they would be dead) who fire back. In the volley of bullets, the father is first injured and then killed. With Lilly in juvenile incarceration and her husband killed by police, the narrator’s mother falls into a deep depression and struggles to cope. Social services are alerted and their response is to take the mother into care and ship the narrator out to The Fell.
The narrator’s group of friends expand as The Fell gains some new arrivals. They also make friends with the Cubans who run the nearby cafe and the narrator meets Melody Grace. He knows very little about her but manages to start a relationship, convincing himself he’s in love. As spring moves into summer, she leaves for a new job. The narrator’s left heartbroken. His friends manage to acquire two adult pigeons legitimately and four baby pigeons whose source may not have been completely legitmate but were payment in return for a favour to go in the loft that the narrator has been building on The Fell’s roofspace. The narrator has spent time talking about his desire to own pigeons and is knowledgeable enough to keep the babies alive and the adults cared for. On return from supporting a friend in a boxing contest, their joy at the friend’s win is short-lived as they discover the pigeons have been killed and their loft destroyed by the headmaster. The boys vow revenge, but this seems to be as ineffectual as the suggestion they bust Lilly from jail.
One night boys get on the roof and are caught out by the headmaster. They humiliate him and narrator has a chance to push the headmaster off roof but something stops him. After that night, the headmaster keeps his distance, as if lulling the boys into a false sense of security. The narrator is dreading the summer. Some of his friends are unwillingly moving on. He’s called to the headmaster’s office after being told to pack his things. He knows this is a bad sign: boys given similar instructions never come back. But the narrator’s not yet old enough to leave. The headmaster appears to be waiting for someone but first hands the narrator a letter, which turns out to be from Melody Grace and the narrator pockets it. It seems Melody Grace is still interested. Two social workers turn up. They chat with the headmaster as if old friends. The narrator is told he’s being moved on due to keeping undesirable company including illegal immigrants and a joke is made about ‘twenty dollars’ (at this point it would have been useful for readers to know that the headmaster knows Melody Grace as the twenty dollar whore before the next incident). The narrator lashes out and runs.
Robert Jenkins successfully keeps the reader on the side of the boys, who do their best under confusing circumstances with very little, if any, adult guidance. Despite the adults’ neglect, the boys establish a code of behaviour. They know they are being treated unjustly but have no idea how to improve their lot other than being in solidarity with each other. Each character is fully-rounded and comes alive from the page. Even the staff feel more than just ciphers: they are world-weary, want as little trouble as possible from the boys and have low aspirations for their charges. That the social workers knew and were chummy with the headmaster leads readers to imagine them being drinking buddies and swapping stories about some of the appalling behaviour and tricks the boys have played without every stopping to consider their contribution to their situation.
‘The Fell’ is fiction but drawn from experience and Robert Jenkins has created a memorable gang of sympathetic teenagers forced into making the best of a bad job. At the end, readers root for the narrator to make a successful escape. He has learnt so much in his stay at The Fell and behaves in a more mature manner than the adults. Robert Jenkins resists the temptation to explain everything by swapping viewpoints from the narrator to staff. The first person narrative is adhered to throughout, controlling the pace of events and limiting the knowledge given to readers so readers follow the narrator and understand his choices.