Author Karyn Monk’s latest book, The Prisoner, has much to recommend it. A
unique conflict, rich characterization and dialogue so true, I could hear each character’s
individual voice in my head. With so much going for it, I was surprised I didn’t enjoy the book more.
The story opens in Scotland in the winter of 1861 and Genevieve MacPhail has once again gone to the prison to rescue yet another child. Over the years, Genevieve has come
to an agreement with the prison governor to provide a structured environment in her home for the destitute children who have been incarcerated primarily for doing whatever was necessary in order to stay alive...such as stealing food.
Each child, after payment is made to the Governor, is released into Genevieve’s care until the end of the child’s sentence. It is her hope that with a bit of instruction and a warm, loving environment, the children will have a better chance at an honest and productive life.
On this day she has been summoned to collect Jack, a fourteen-year-old boy arrested for stealing one pair of shoes, a round of cheese and a bottle of whiskey. When she enters
his cell, she encounters a full fledged brawl.
The prison warder had been taking Jack for his sentenced whipping when Jack’s cellmate, Haydon Kent, interfered. Haydon is a convicted murderer, sentenced to hang the next morning. But even after having been badly beaten himself, Haydon could not sit back and allow a child to be whipped. Genevieve walks in to find Haydon on the floor being mercilessly kicked by the warder. Although there is nothing she can do to help Haydon, she leaves impressed that his last words to her asked nothing for himself, just that she look after the boy.
But Jack takes matters into his own hands, and creates a scene allowing Haydon to escape. That night, when the feverish and badly beaten Haydon shows up at Genevieve’s door, she feels compelled to take him in.
While hiding Haydon and nursing him back to health, Genevieve learns he is the Marquess of Redmond and that he murdered a man in self-defense. She is determined to help him get on his feet so he can go and prove his innocence, even if his presence could mean disaster for herself and the six children in her care.
But Genevieve has always done what she’s thought best for others. As a young noblewoman of eighteen, she rescued her infant half-brother, born in prison to her father’s mistress, and is raising him herself. In doing so, she lost her fiancé and her place in society.
Haydon is her total opposite. He is a rake in every sense of the word and a mistake in his past haunts him. He knows he is not worthy of Genevieve’s love. Whenever Genevieve and Haydon interact, the story really takes off. Unfortunately, this happens rarely. The emphasis in the story is on the children and the romance suffers because of it. The children are well developed and appealing, but there’s simply too much of them.
I also found myself drifting off throughout much of the narrative, particularly towards the end of the book. It was unnecessary to tell the reader, page after page, how giving a person Genevieve was. The author clearly shows Genevieve's selflessness through her actions.
The same holds true for the children. The horrors of being a poor child during that time are evident from Jack’s plight. Detailing each child’s experience put too much focus on the children and detracted from the romance.
As I mentioned at the start, the writing in The Prisoner is superb. Unfortunately, the romance between Genevieve and Haydon is taken prisoner by a group of too-cute urchins and it suffered for it.