Reading in the Desert

…a bookworm in Dubai

The Penal Colony by Richard Herley

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The Penal Colony

I downloaded a free copy of this for my Kindle on the basis of some rave reviews.

The story begins when (wrongly, of course) convicted murderer, quantity surveyor Anthony Routledge, is sent to the island of Sert to serve his sentence. Sert is a penal colony for the very worst types of offenders who are sent the island and left to their own devices with only satellite surveillance and occasional helicopter drops of supplies from the outside world. The convicts have settled into two factions: The Village, where the men work together as a community using their individual skills and talents to establish a basic level of civilisation; The Outsiders on the other hand live outside the Village where there are no rules and must fight amongst themselves for survival. Routledge’s first task on arrival is to survive on the outside to prove himself worthy of a place in The Village.

This book was a surprisingly good read (my expectations weren’t high). It took the done-before premise of the penal colony and imagined how such a society would evolve. There was plenty of action alongside the power struggles, processes of self-discovery and complex engineering projects culminating in a daring escape plan. It shows what humans can achieve when they work together and how brutal and savage they can be when they are in conflict.

The book is marred by racist and homophobic undertones. From the very start some characters were defined by their skin colour and portrayed in a negative light as if somehow the colour of their skin and behaviour went hand in hand. These characters were not given names but referred to as ‘the black’ and ‘the mulatto’. This book was written in 1987, hardly the dark ages, and the tone at the beginning of the book stopped me in my tracks and I considered not continuing with it. It is only my ‘never giving up on a book’ policy that kept me reading. I figured that pointing out my exceptions in my review would be a fair compromise.

Putting these issues aside I did ultimately enjoy the story. It is not my usual sort of book and was rather too violent for my liking but as an adventure story, a story of survival, and a back to basics establishment of society and community it was an interesting read.

3 stars

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