Star-crossed lovers in a death-row romance Thuy On
Inside the Tiger By Hayley Lawrence Penguin, 352pp, $19.99 Micah has a tattoo on his flank: a fan of five cards accompanied by the words “Born to die, play to live”. As the 19-year-old puts it, “you go on living like you’re dead, you might as well be. We’re all born to die, but it’s how you play your cards that counts.”
Unfortunately, Micah has been dealt a losing hand all his young years, the last gamble of which has led him to Thailand. It’s here, in Bang Kwang prison (otherwise known as “Big Tiger” because it eats men alive), that he is sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Until this game is over, he is to eke out his minutes in squalid conditions, trying to evade the casual brutality of equally listless inmates and guards. Only a tight crew of mates, and certain letters flying ever so slowly across the South China Sea, offer a wan shard of light through the prison bars.
Months earlier, as part of her legal studies assignment, 17-year-old Sydneysider Bel impulsively decided to write to an inmate on death row and chose the Australian-born Micah because he’d never had a visitor and thus no contact from the outside world. Locked in for 14 hours a day, with only brief excursions to blink at the polluted patch of Bangkok sky, Micah’s curtailed hours on earth are pitiful. Hayley Lawrence’s Inside the Tiger, shortlisted for last year’s The Australian/ Vogel’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts, has been published as young adult fiction. It is a tentative and gentle love story that casts an unflinching look at intergenerational crime, capital punishment and justice on a national and international scale.
More pointedly, it’s about the desperate bid for clemency. As Bel comes to understand, “sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge”. This quote is from Titus Andronicus, arguably Shakespeare’s most violent play. It’s one of the texts studied by Bel in her elite blazer blazer-and-tie boarding school, which means the socio-economic chasm between the two protagonists could hardly be greater.
Yet it is almost inevitable that along with missives and care packages, Bel starts to provide something even more salutary to the condemned man: hope. Despite her best friend Tash warning that Micah will “leave a big black smudge” on her heart, Bel still wants to “share all my secrets and hold all of his before the sand in his timer runs out”.
Lawrence adeptly handles the teenager’s transition from apolitical entitled princess to galvanised activist. Bel tries, with all the naivety given to the young, to agitate for a royal pardon. The debut author is also kind to Micah, who’s drawn as a barely grown boy who made a serious mistake in service of a family debt, not a hardened criminal. They are both sympathetic characters, and their growing closeness is sensitively handled.
But there are exigencies in the plot that seem too conveniently wrought. It takes Bel barely a heart flutter to fall for a stranger in another country’s jail, for instance. Meanwhile, the boy who lives next door and with whom she shared her childhood is now (after a couple of gawky years) quite handsome. There is no surprise Eli is the third angle in the love triangle. Their growing attraction to one another is in direct correlation to Bel’s heated imaginings of an unshackled Micah.
If such oppositional drama doesn’t provide enough confusion for the adolescent reader, Lawrence also makes Bel’s father the minister for justice, a politician who has long rallied for tougher sentencing laws, particularly after the brutal death of a family member.
The divide between parent and child is a bit too neatly carved out along political lines, yet it does open the way for an important part of the story: Bel wangling her way to see Micah by saying she’s doing a comparative study of different legal systems: rehabilitation in Australia versus retributive justice in Thailand.
Structuring a novel around a contentious issue such as the death penalty risks an earnest soapbox dialectic powering the narrative. But Lawrence avoids that. Her characters give the book power and urgency. is books editor of The Big Issue.