Star-crossed lovers in a death-row ro­mance Thuy On

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - 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.

Hay­ley Lawrence

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