Little Prisons – Ilona Bannister

There was a time before and there will be a time after. I cannot imagine it, Mother, but there will be a time after this one. 

Four women who seemingly have nothing in common all live in the new building on Bedford Road. 

Penny in 1B remembers a time when leaving her home didn’t feel impossible. Penny has agoraphobia.

In 1A, on the other side of Penny’s wall, Carla is doing her best to raise fourteen year old Mary Rose and twelve year old Daniel while experiencing coercive control.

Frequently knocking on both of their doors is the building’s resident Jehovah’s Witness, Mable from 3B. 

Then there’s Woman, who resides with the building’s owner and his family in 2A-2B. Woman hasn’t had an identity since she left Home Country. The promise of Better Life was a lie. Woman has been trafficked and is now a slave.

Told from the perspectives of the four central women and a few others whose lives intercept one or more of them, this story primarily takes place over the course of a year, beginning in January 2020. Written during lockdown, Little Prisons explores the lives of these four women both before and during lockdown, and how acts of kindness, some that don’t cost much and some that cost much more, change their lives.

Some really difficult life experiences are explored in this book and at times I really felt the weight of that. The perseverance and courage of the women gave me hope though and I quickly became invested in their lives. 

Initially I had trouble believing that the four women dealing with all of these monumental problems were all living in a building that only had space for nine residences. Then I stepped back and thought about it. I realised that you don’t know what you don’t know and that’s the point. 

We rarely know what’s happening behind the closed doors of people’s lives. People experiencing what the women in this book are are silenced, their traumas invisible.

I loved that these strangers, who just so happen to live in the same building, became important to one another. Sure, they don’t necessarily like one another initially and, let’s face it, have no reason to place their trust in anyone, but gradually they let themselves be seen. That’s so powerful.

There was a little ugly cry that took me unawares but my takeaway from this book is hope. I love found family stories and find strength in reading about people who have every reason to give up but keep getting out of bed every day and trying again. 

While I understood that this wasn’t their story, a part of me really wants to know more about the man in 1C, the young couple in 3A and the three girls in 3C. What were their stories and how much of what was happening in their building were they aware of?

Content warnings include domestic abuse, human trafficking, mental health, physical abuse, racism, sexual assault and slavery. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with a couple of scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Two Roads, an imprint of John Murray Press, for the opportunity to read this book. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When you can’t get out, let kindness in.

In a non-descript building in a gentrifying corner of London, Penny is doing daily battle with her mind. She is convinced that the world beyond her door is too dangerous for her, though her heart knows it isn’t. Penny’s neighbour, Carla, an American expat and single mother of two teens, has lived in a coercive relationship for many years, too worn down by her controlling husband to escape her situation. Mable, Penny’s upstairs neighbour, an elderly Jamaican pensioner and devout Jehovah’s Witness, has sacrificed everything for her faith, including her relationship with her family. And Woman, the housekeeper and nanny on the second floor, has been trafficked. When she is not cleaning and cooking, she works in the laundrette the landlord owns on the ground floor, a hidden slave in full view of the public.

Through grocery deliveries, glimpses through windows, and overheard conversations in the stairwell, the women come to know each other. Their small acts of compassion help them each find a way to mend the broken paths in their lives.

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