It comes as no consolation to detect the residues of good intention within the fifty-year-old Goodhouse system. The meditation and impulse-control techniques the boys have been taught as an attempt to master their supposed antisocial inclinations have limited effectiveness in the absence of compassion for their ordinary humanity. A token economy, a system of rewards to encourage desired behaviours, has been perverted for a means of punishing minor transgressions. The message is that total institutions have an inbuilt capacity to harm, attracting staff with a propensity to abuse their power and brutalising those with a genuine desire to help.
Fortunately, this story does offer the reader some hope of redemption. James is a sympathetic character, a classic hero struggling valiantly against impossible odds. Bethany, the teenage girl he meets on his community outing, is equally determined. The small ways in which the boys defied the regime was reminiscent of the prisoners of war in The Narrow Road to the Deep North as, under strict orders to stay silent, they had devised a palming sign-language like the one that had saved the sanity of death-blind Liza in The Visitors. (In the real world, too, we can find examples of positive programmes for prisoners, such as the sewing project described in a post by Geoff LePard, although some have a tendency to take off in the wrong direction, as in my prison gardening project flash.)
If you like thrillers, if you can tolerate a novel that poses uncomfortable questions about how we treat those we fear and despise, Goodhouse is for you. Thank you Transworld for my proof copy. For more about the novel, and the inspiration behind it, do visit my Q&A with Peyton Marshall.