Book of a lifetime - Tony Parker's Life After Life


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The Independent Culture

Life After Life: Interviews with Twelve Murderers is a book which I was given, and in turn I’ve given it to others. I’ve never met anyone who read it who wasn’t changed by it.

Published in 1990, it takes a simple format: Tony Parker interviews with great care and sensitivity 12 people serving a life sentence, most on parole. Parker got to know them over the course of a few encounters, taping and transcribing their life stories as a monologue. Occasional asides – “from time to time he gave a small detached laugh” – help to set the scene.

They are like short plays. Some are harrowing, others strangely inspiring. Each one contains a killing, so you are inevitably reminded of crime dramas – yet these testaments are so much more valuable. They aren’t sensationalist; they aren’t judgemental. You start to understand how a life goes wrong from the very start, often, then worsens, gradually, very slowly, until in a drunken moment or a few seconds’ rage, the unthinkable happens.

This book considers the long-term consequences for the murderer. In a subtle way, it asks what justice is. As you read, you question the system, the limits of your own compassion, the cost and the price paid. The shadow, present at all times, is the victim.

“I murdered my best friend, a girl called Sandra, when I was 29,” says one of the two women in the book. “It sounds a funny thing to say, but while I was in Holloway on remand waiting for my trial, the only person I kept hoping would come and visit me was Sandra. I missed her very much.” Some of the stories here take incredible twists. Reading this book is not a slog. I first read it when I was deciding to be a journalist and it showed me how the best journalism can be riveting and socially engaged.

Parker’s transcripts are easy to read, concealing the vast amount of work it takes to achieve something this fluid and concise. He captures the speech patterns of his interviewees; he has an amazing ear. There is a great deal of art in his construction. You can’t help but become interested in the issue of prison reform if you read this book. “At first I was scared of books,” says one convict, who eventually went to the Education Office and asked to study. “I stopped fighting and I started learning how to put it all to work, all that fierceness and energy and force. I’d stay up all night reading: you’d get the odd landing screw now and again who’d be decent enough to let you keep your cell light on. It got like I was hooked on a drug.”

It’s a powerful book. Pass it on.

Hermione Eyre’s novel, ‘Viper Wine’, is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99)