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Michelle Berry's The Prisoner and the Chaplain is a matter of life and death

Novel published by Hamilton’s Wolsak & Wynn explores guilt and takes place on death row.

The Prisoner and the Chaplain (Wolsak & Wynn)

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The Prisoner and the Chaplain (Wolsak & Wynn)

Michelle Berry was stuck deciding between two storylines for her next novel. So the Peterborough, Ont., author divided her trusty whiteboard, filling one half with notes on a potential detective story about a young girl, the victim of a hit-and-run, whose neighbours come together to track down the suspect. The other half contained ideas about two men stuck together in a room for hours, one of whom is destined to die at the end.

At the same time, Berry was tired of writing out of her home — her teenage kids were always around — so she rented an office in an old building as a private space to work on the new book, whichever plot may win. The room was only about 10 feet by 10 feet, with a tiny sink stained with paint from its former artist tenant, and a shared bathroom. “It felt like death row,” she recalls four years later. “It was really rundown.”

But that feeling of containment eventually led to her new novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain, published by Hamilton’s Wolsak & Wynn, a tightly paced, story-conversation set in a prison death row, with one heck of a twist ending.

Taking place over 12 hours, the unnamed chaplain, who is still psychologically synthesizing his own violent act against a girlfriend years ago, is tasked with offering solace to a murderer during his final hours on Earth. The prisoner has no desire to hear prayers, instead he demands the chaplain listen to his life story, told through flashback episodes: heartbreaking childhood abuse and torturing concussions from subsequent head injuries; the sudden disappearance of his mother and brother; and the discovery of his seemingly natural talents as a criminal.

“I was thinking about guilt and two people with different kinds of guilt being stuck together,” Berry says. “I’m really interested in structure, and wanted every hour to be a chapter and to see if I could even speed it up, so you get a sense of fastness to the story.”

Given the fact that the death penalty is a contentious topic, one could argue that Berry is something of a risk-taker. She’s never been one to shy away from grit, either: her previous books have dealt with suspected pedophilia, dysfunctional families and dark suburban secrets.

Although the chaplain’s views on corporal punishment waiver throughout the story, Berry remains firmly anti-death row. “In a sense, horrible criminals like Paul Bernardo, you want them to suffer even more,” she says. “It seems too light to execute.”

But Berry kept her political views off the page, and decided to stray from facts to ensure the story was not misinterpreted as a political manifesto. For instance, in her story, prisoners are allowed to choose their mode of execution — the criminal chooses electrocution. “He got the punishment he wanted,” Berry says. “I didn’t really want the book to be about death row, but the character was going to have to die by the end of it, and it would be out of his control.”

This article has been updated from a previous version.

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