Chain Gang All Stars by  Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Imagine a world of privatised prisons, instruments of control that are torture and Black prisoners fighting each other to death as entertainment on TV. Yes, this is a powerful book with a powerful message set in adystopian future but one where the seeds were sown a decade or so ago. Imagine a prison system where you have to fight to survive and if you do so for three years, you are set free.

Each prisoner on the entertainment scheme has a weapon, often similar to the Greek Gods. Loretta Thurwar has a hammer but there are also spears and scythes and the fights take place in front of a live audience as well as televised, the live audience not unlike the Roman Colosseum and the film Gladiator by Russell Crowe where the gladiators taunt and excite the audience. Interspersed throughout the story are factual snippets in the audiobook and footnotes in a hard copy that provide statistics and data about what is happening in prisons nowadays and this has the effect of ensuring that the two tracks of fact and fiction in this novel run parallel with one another but with fiction slightly ahead and the factual information chasing to catch up.

The producers of the TV show change the rules each season and for the 33rd season their new rule is that there can not be two fighters at the highest level on the same chain. If there are, they must fight so that only one is left. This would be the last fight for Thurwar and it is against Staxxx, her lover.

The message is loud and clear: you can’t win.

Whilst the Thurwar and Staxxx story is the main one I think, there are several sub-plots. There are the abolitionists that protest at the fights, there are the producers of the programme and the guards, there is the live audience baying for blood and their favourite characters. There is the story of Bad Water, an innocent man imprisoned and through that now a killer because of the programme. There is also the circular history of Thurwar in that she was incarcerated because she killed a woman, one assumes a lover, and here to gain her freedom she must once again kill her lover. This time it is sanctioned by the system, commercialism, capitalism and the people.

The book shows us time and time again that the prison system is as violent and inhumane as the rest of society or should that be the other way round? There is no difference. In fact, I felt like I had been slammed by Thurwood’s hammer with this message. I also felt that in the middle, the story slowed down and it felt like we were going over the same material again and again.

This is no delicate, subtle story – this is a story to bludgeon us with.

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