The Penal Colony

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The Penal Colony, Richard Herley, book reviewThe Penal Colony by Richard Herley has recently been available as a free download on Kindle, and from the synopsis given it sounded like it would be a reasonable read for a freebie. Although published in the late 1980s, I hadn’t heard of it before, and I assumed it was written more recently.

The Penal Colony is about a man named Tony Routledge who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. Set in the late 1990s, so the near future for reads in 1897, prisons are now on islands offshore, where convicts are left to fend for themselves with weekly helicopter drops of supplies. Routledge is sent to Sert, where an organised and civilised community exists in the Village, but the island is also populated with groups of Outsiders, who want access to the supply drops controlled by the Village.

The first thing to note about reading The Penal Colony today is that, in general terms, it is not very dated. There are some small elements which show it is not new, and some attitudes which could date it, but the main theme of these offshore prison camps and prison overcrowding is one which is still very relevant today. I didn’t realise the age of the book until Routledge mentions his year of birth and age, which pointed to the present of the novel being around 1998.

The story of The Penal Colony is quite predictable, but still exciting. There is plenty of action as Routledge has to survive on his own before being allowed to join the Village. We also have sections from the Outsiders side of the story, so we learn more about them.

In general and on the surface, The Penal Colony is a good read with a relevant theme of the future of prisons. However, not long after Routledge arrived on the island I began to feel uneasy about a particular attitude or stance of the author – his treatment of homosexuality. The majority of the Outsiders are homosexual, while it is banned in the Village due to a fear of AIDS. However, the homosexuality of the Outsiders is seen as disgusting and something to fear – it is portrayed as synonymous with rape and orgies. Even the only mention in the novel of fully consensual sex, which appears to be within the bounds of a loving relationship, is described as “depraved”.

Perhaps the author is using homosexuality as a tool to illustrate the differences between the Village and the Outsiders, which could then lead to the possibility of the island being an allegory for society as a whole, but quite frankly it left me feeling very uneasy. Herley’s treatment of homosexuality cam across as homophobic, and I did not like it. It really let down an otherwise good book.

The Penal Colony has a good story, a good concept and a valid theme, but the author’s use of homosexuality as something to be feared and reviled left me feeling uneasy about the whole novel. Perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick, but I would say to be prepared for this if you decide to read the novel.

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Penal Colony, The
by Richard Herley

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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