Author: Piper Kerman
Publisher: Abacus (in the UK)
Published: 2010 (this edition 2013)
Suffering withdrawal symptoms after finally finishing the TV adaptation, I recently decided to read Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black- the memoirs of a middle-class American sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for a decade old drugs-related offence. It definitely provides a fascinating insight into life ‘on the inside’, and describes a situation one can actually almost imagine themselves in given Kerman describes her experiences from the point of view of someone who had never been to prison before rather than a hardened criminal. Readers will feel everything from hilarity to shock to sadness as the true horrors of the federal prison system are revealed, usually followed by a genuine description of Kerman’s reaction to this new discovery. That being said, readers expecting anything like the drama of the show will be disappointed- whilst it’s a fascinating read for anyone who has never experienced prison life themselves, this really is simply an account of life in prison, even if it is a well-written and affecting one.
The idea of the real-life story being a lot less eventful than the TV show- which takes the basic characters and scenario from Kerman’s novel but makes them much more extreme- is definitely reflected in the characters. The same characters may well be present, and in some cases it may even be implied that they are capable of some of what does occur in the show, however their stories are no longer as dramatized. Their nicknames are also different- for instance ‘Red’ from the show is ‘Pop’ in the book, and ‘Taystee’ is now ‘Delicious’. Whilst it does arguably make the book less exciting to read these less dramatic storylines, an obvious plus is that readers do get a sense of what the average person’s stay in prison is like, not a somewhat satirised character. The backstories of the characters do seem more feasible too, the odd time they are discussed. Paired with the more realistic characterisation, this manages to make the characters feel more like real people; thus we are more sympathetic towards their plight and it is easier to put ourselves in their shoes. Kerman herself proves a likeable narrator, and manages to sound both honest and earnest in her description of her time behind bars. She does not attempt to justify or defend the actions that landed her in prison in the first place, and is open about the bitter feelings she felt at times- especially when she encountered her co-defendant and former girlfriend in prison. It is also both humorous and oddly relatable to hear the conventions of day to day life in the prison system narrated by someone who is so far from a hardened convict. It is Kerman’s naivety about everything from showering to working in prison that so endears her to the audience, creating the humour required to lighten her bleak circumstances as we wonder what we would do in her position.
When describing the style of writing in this book, the first word that comes to mind is honest. Because, aside from the fact one is made to feel they are really getting the truthful, positive and negative details of Kerman’s time in prison, it is ultimately her honesty that allows readers to feel all the emotions that come with this book. And there are many, as whatever Kerman experiences we receive a sense of too. There is humour when she expresses her bemusement about how she can possibly survive without her creature comforts in prison; sadness as she conveys the pain she feels at missing out on seeing those she loves everyday, and a sense of respect when she describes how seeing the suffering her drug addict fellow inmates had been through truly made her see the impact of her crimes. In the end, what’s amazing about this book isn’t the actual story- it’s the emotional rollercoaster, happily ending in redemption, that it takes us on.
At this point in the review, I would normally start to talk about the plot of the book of the day, yet I find myself in the bizarre position of having thoroughly enjoyed a book, but being unsure of what to say here. The most exciting part of Kerman’s autobiography is undoubtedly the fact she has been so truthful- followed by the events detailed as she describes the world-travelling lifestyle she and her drug dealing girlfriend lead, which ultimately landed them both in prison. The actual description of day to day events in prison could be dismissed as monotonous or ordinary if it wasn’t for the author’s wit. Once Kerman’s incarceration begins, the only really unusual event is when she is asked to testify at a co-defendant’s trial in Chicago and reunited with her ex as a result, but even this has less thrilling results than the same event in the television programme… Which brings me to the point of this review. If you approach Orange is the New Black expecting something as eventful and exaggerated as the television programme based on it, you will be disappointed by the lack of action. But, if you approach it as a genuine look at what life in the American federal prison system is like from a prisoner’s perspective that has simply been built on by the adaptation, you will find an informative, witty and above all moving story of what prison can really out a person through. And you really will be almost as excited as Kerman when she finally tastes freedom after we have delighted in hearing the mundane but enthralling details of herself and her fellow inmates’ lives. Above all, this is an amazing story of the consequences of one mistake, and the subsequent journey to true redemption as Kerman pays the price for her actions.
Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟 (4/5)