Review: Knifer by Ronnie Thompson (2011, UK)

Note: Factual Events are contained in the link below which serve as a spoiler to this book’s story.

Ronnie Thompson has written two other books about prison life from both the guards’ and prisoners’ points of view. Knifer, his third book is the first to be amalgamated from several true stories with his own professional experience about life as an English prison guard and so it really ceases to become a non-fiction memoir if it’s dramatised into one single narrative. That doesn’t prepare you for the realistic gritty qualities of the people in the book although the street slang will certainly date in time. That probably explains the publication straight to paperback. (For any potential American readers, “sowsh” is short for social). The one advantage of Thompson’s dramatised reality is that the depictions of child abuse in the book are blunt, flattened, but never unrealistic when described in flashback when the character is aged eight. It’s the later meeting when the lead character has more or less grown up and bumps into the paedophile responsible that is probably true, but comes off feeling like total fiction.

The same issue affects the relationships in the book, where in order to ground the story in reality, there’s a love triangle which is also gut-punchingly real, provides the gateway into the second main phase of the book – as the prison section naturally dominates – but fades away into the background until it returns at the end and doesn’t feel as real as the rest of any violence described. Don’t click the link if you don’t want to see a spoiler but nearer the end of the prison section a Google search revealed a similar true event 12 years ago as dramatised by Thompson. The writing style is as addictive as the drug addiction described in the book, I was reading it on a round trip from work which became delayed so nearly six hours and halfway through, I finished it on an overnight blitz. It is excellent, though naturally preachy in places, there’s only the one dopey guard and the rest are either surrogate Dads or as predisposed to violence as the young offenders they’re charged with. I suspect Thompson’s proper autobiography or his middle book have more rounded portrayals of prison staff though of course some of these archetypes are inevitable when changing details to preserve anonymity.
Knifer is however, an excellent modern-day portrayal of life as a young offender and *some* possible causes for the violence that leads to young killers and other criminals.

Nearer the end of the book the story simply happens and you are invited to make your own mind up about how you see part of the conclusion – including whether the ending is almost too happy, reflecting the dramatised reality once more. It would only have been bettered if Thompson’s former writing partner Davey Sommers had written something similar to his middle book, but all about the criminals. When read in almost a single sitting, the story leaves you with issues to think about in the style of Harry Keeble and Kris Hollington’s police and social work book collection. I got Knifer from the library, now it’s on my list to buy and keep. It’s been out a year; read it as soon as possible because once the slang changes on the street – (and it probably already has started to evolve as language always does) it risks becoming a history book.

The issues, I suspect, will not change, so Thompson has provided an excellent social commentary that’s well worth reading.


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