Pomegranate, a novel by Helen Elaine Lee

by | May 4, 2023 | What I'm Reading | 0 comments

Helen Elaine Lee’s powerful and highly readable novel brings the world of a formerly incarcerated woman to life with compassion and artistry. “I live my life forward and backward,” Ranita declares in the first sentence of chapter one as she is about to be released after four years of incarceration at Oak Hills, a women’s prison outside Boston. Forward and backward is how the book proceeds, offering us glimpses of life within the prison and of Ranita’s life before prison, but these slices of her existence all contribute to our understanding of the challenges she faces in her life after prison.

For Ranita, and we will understand, likely for millions of others, life after prison does not mean freedom. Ranita’s priority is to regain her relationship—both legally and emotionally—to her two children. But she is not allowed to even see her children at first. She must prove herself free of the addiction that landed her in prison. And while she is no longer physically addicted to the drugs that led to her arrest, the circumstances of her life—the challenges of poverty, a neighborhood whose residents have few choices other than criminal behavior for escaping poverty, the residue of a harsh upbringing—leave her teetering, again and again, on the brink of return to those substances that will numb and dull the pain.

Lee’s depiction of these challenges is masterful, and we care deeply about Ranita, sympathizing with her when she succumbs in small ways to the habits she is struggling to overcome, and cheering her on when she succeeds in her progress. The inspiration of Maxine, her lover who is still within the walls of Oak Hills, sustains her, even from a distance, as does the memory of her loving father, now deceased. Other relatives support her by caring for her children and finding work opportunities and aid Ranita in her journey, but she is surrounded as well by dealers and pimps who hope to lure her back into the world she is trying to escape.

Once she is allowed to see her children, the visits are not what she hopes. Her daughter especially, age 13, is angry at her mother for her absence. Her son’s pain manifests in different ways. Restoring these relationships are both challenge and motivation for Ranita.

Whoever you are, whatever your background, you will know Ranita as you would know a close friend, even if you have never knowingly met a formerly incarcerated person, stepped inside a prison, or lived in a neighborhood in which the only visible career path is crime. Lee is a professor of creative writing at MIT who helped to establish the Prison Creative Writing Program. In her acknowledgements, she thanks women and men who took part in creative writing programs at numerous prisons and correctional facilities in Massachusetts, as well as many people who work with recently released or incarcerated peoples. These experiences are embodied in the character of Ranita. We feel Ranita’s pain, but we feel her determination and her hope as well.

Every word of this novel has the ring of truth.