Sunday 16 September 2018

Book review 13 : ‘The Chamber’, by John Grisham.

‘When you have a date with the grim reaper,
you think about the damage you’ve done.’

The Key Characters.

Adam Cayhall, a lawyer.
Sam Cayhall, Adam’s grandfather.
Lee Cayhall, Adam’s alcoholic aunt.

 The Storyline:

Sam Cayhall, a 69-year-old former Ku Klux Klan member has been sentenced to death in the gas chamber at the Mississippi state penitentiary for murder. He is back in prison after being acquitted twice in the past for the accidental deaths of twin children in a bombing, that occurred years ago.

His grandson Adam Cayhall, who has never seen his grandfather since five, is now 26. A rookie lawyer, Adam feels compelled to attempt to save his grandfather from the gas chamber.

Adam Cayhall’s race against time, chasing the law from pillar to post, in a desperate series of appeals in multiple courts, even as he battles with guilt, horror, anxiety resultant of the repercussions of a highly dysfunctional family that suffers the tainted legacy of Sam Cayhall, forms the crux of the story.


The Review

This has to be one of the most poignant books I’ve read, second only to ‘The Green Mountain’, which I read almost more than a decade ago and has still stayed with me. The chamber is one such story that stays with the reader, ages after the book has been put down.

A whopping 676 pages, in tiny font-size, of an emotional rollercoaster is what ‘The Chamber’ is all about.

If the whole book had to be summed up in one single word, it would not be ‘Death’. It would be ‘Hope’. For although the whole book revolves around the imminent death of Sam, Adam’s desperate endevour to save his grandfather is nothing but an exercise in eternal hope.

This is a story that begins on a depressing note and only gets increasingly miserable along the way. Each turn of the page holds the reader spellbound, with the suspense building up towards one hopeless event after another.

It takes special genius for the author to start off by making the reader despise and loathe a main character and then unwind his humane side, layer by excruciating layer and finally end up making the reader have a complete turn-around, to the point that one begins to love Sam for what he is – a pathetic old man with a truly misguided past, who lived to repent his sins, so much so, that he does not deserve to die the way he is destined to.

It takes the brilliance of a storyteller like Grisham, to weave emotions ruthlessly around a seemingly heartless killer and yet make the reader’s heart go out to him, to cry for him, to hope for his acquittal.

The irreparable damage caused by the actions of a single member of a family under the influence of a prejudiced and violent klan, on the whole generation of his kith and kin, is brought out with brutal clarity.

One of the most controversial issues of the world such as racism and a debatable topic such as capital punishment have found their way as a compelling couplet, to unleash a story of optimism, anticipation, faith, despair and courage in the wake of hopelessness.

Sam’s simple tendency to measure and count each step in every room he enters, tears at reader’s heart-strings. Grisham uses subtle and not-so- subtle examples to delve into the mind of a man who has lived nine long years of his life caged within a six-by-nine cell. The detailed account of the complete procedure of gassing a person to death in the chamber, and the consequent suffering encountered by the condemned, sends multiple shivers down the reader’s spine.

Perhaps the most sardonic parts of the story are the samples of wry humor that shine through in the dialogues between the main protagonists. It is sheer expertise of the writer that makes the reader hold her sides, racked by helpless laughter, even as Sam discusses his death with his grandson.

To make the readers wipe tears of mirth instead of tears of melancholy, as the situation might demand, is ironic brilliance at its best.

However, what really irks the reader is the failure in deliverance of justice to the actual culprit in the whole scheme. This, although resonant with grim realities of the legal system or perhaps human nature, is terribly disappointing to the reader, who waits in vain till the end, for shreds of justice to emerge from amidst the helpless mess of Sam’s trail.

The author keeps the reader hoping and hoping for the elusive miracle right up to the last page. It takes enormous effort for the reader to not turn the pages to the climax and read the end, to assuage the unbearable suspense of the inevitable.

Grisham’s profound understanding of human nature and psychology cannot be undermined.

The powerful imagery of the ‘Death Row’ and the life of the inmates is showcased with brutal clarity. The character of Nugent is a classic example of how some individuals crave and relish the sadistic excitement of the procedure of putting a person to death, even as the victim in question oscillates between lucid emotions ranging from undying hope to eternal despair.

Adam’s own struggle with guilt for helping his grandfather, even as he sprints against time to do so, is palpable.

The strong bonds of camaraderie that are forged between different individuals sharing a similar fate are showcased with melancholic precision. The many scenes that depict multiple criminals with brutal murders under their belt, weeping and mourning Sam’s fate, while praying and hoping for a miracle to save him and themselves from sharing a similar end, is depressing and heartwarming at the same time.

Sam’s endevour to re-visit and relish old happy memories, the attempts at laughter amidst peril are heart-wrenching. His re-living of a happy childhood is evident in his great enjoyment of a simple eskimo pie. His simple yearning to wear normal clothes that he had worn when he’d been free, right from khakis to white socks and oversized shoes; his last desire to die in clothes that are ‘real’, conspire to touch emotionally raw nerves.

The nonchalance with which the characters are forced to discuss impending death, burial and funeral arrangements send shivers down the spine. The pathetic attempts at humor during peril are reminiscent of the human tendency to resort to hilarity, while dealing with subjects that are too painful to fathom, but inevitable to face.

The nerve-racking procedures that revolve around the courts, lawyers and the law are woven seamlessly into the narrative to heighten the suspense from the first page, till the very end.

Overall, this is a book that cannot be put down and one that should not be missed, especially if you are a Grisham fan.


The Take-aways

There are umpteen lessons to be gleaned from within the pages of this masterpiece.
Fate does exist and she does catch up with you, sooner or later, no matter how smug you are in your belief in the contrary.

It is the simple joys of life make life worthy of living.

Do not take anything for granted.
Not the clothes on your back, the roof above your head, every morsel of food you eat or the very freedom to live…the freedom that you so take for granted. The liberty to walk into a deli and order your favorite coffee, to take long drives along endless roads that lead nowhere, to drench in the cool rain, to enjoy every sunrise.
Not the family that cares for you, loves you and is there for you through thick and thin of your life.

It teaches the reader to live each moment of life, fully and gratefully. And that perhaps is the greatest take-away of this novel.


A higher being was in control after all. The state was helpless when it rained. It was a small victory.

How nice it would be to step through the wall and walk through the wet grass on the other side, to stroll around the prison grounds in the driving rain, naked and crazy, soaking wet with water dripping from his hair and beard.

The horror of death row is that you die a little each day. The waiting kills you. You live in a cage and when you wake up, you mark off another day and you tell yourself that you are now one day closer to death.

At times, death would be welcome.

‘Never forget the victims. They have a right to want retribution. They’ve earned it.’

He sat there for a long time, pondering imponderables, wasting time with fruitless considerations of what might have been.

What else could the bomb have in store for him?

‘It’s far better than living. If they took me back to my cell right now and told me I’d stay there until I died, you know what I’d do?’
‘I’d kill myself.’

He was lost but didn’t care. How can you be lost when you don’t know where you’re going?


Book Photography : ©Chethana Ramesh

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