Henry Roi was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and still finds his inspiration in its places and people.
As a GED tutor and fitness instructor, working both face to face and online, he is an advocate of adult education in all its forms. His many campaigning and personal interests include tattoo art, prison reform and automotive mechanics.
He currently works in publishing, as an editor and publicist. He particularly focuses on promoting talented indie writers – arranging reviews, delivering media campaigns, and running blog tours.
If you’re not lucky enough to catch him fishing round the Biloxi Lighthouse or teaching martial arts in your local gym, he can usually be found on Twitter or Facebook, under Henry Roi PR.
From start to rip-roaring finish, With Her Fists is a vibrant rule-breaker of a novel that picks you up by your ankles, swings you round and takes you to all sorts of places you never planned to go. (I don’t think Henry Roi much cares whether you go through the book kicking-and-screaming or laughing-and-crying. About that, he’ll let you take your choice, but once you start he’s not going to give you any choice about finishing.)
But suppose it were possible to read the beginning and skip to the end – a fairly standard ploy for world-weary book reviewers. The story opens with a bungled operation by a pair of seriously corrupt police officers, leading to a massive, deliberate miscarriage of justice which lands our innocent protagonists in prison. And three-hundred pages later it ends triumphantly enough – I don’t do spoilers so I won’t say more than that. Employing that trusted technique, you could suppose this was a lengthy but otherwise fairly standard piece of crime writing. Clearly the author writes well. The mood is engulfing, the settings credible. It’s professionally done and if only you had time you’d be happy to read it. So dash off a vague review and give it four stars on Amazon….
With Her Fists isn’t a book that allows the reviewer to do that, so I can assure you that I’ve taken the whole ride. As a result, I’m in a position to warn you: this is definitely five stars but it isn’t standard crime writing. I want to tell you what it is, but I can’t write a sentence long enough. It’s a rollercoaster of an action thriller. It’s a slow, intensely written story about the impact of separation on marriage and motherhood. It’s a fight-novel – a romp with wrapped fists and blood and heroic injuries, and occasional moments of shameless magical realism. It’s a serious polemic about the American prison system. It’s a book about female friendship. It’s a nostalgic recollection of a time and place. It includes a couple of episodes of gory horror and (very differently) some moments of realistic pain and loss. Above all, it’s an exuberant celebration of an extraordinary central character. Actually, however, it’s quite a few other things as well…. If you want your novels predictable and fixed-in-genre, With Her Fists might not be for you. (That’s not how I want my novels, so for me the unexpected angles were delectable, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
No one could review With Her Fists without dwelling on the central character, Clarice. I have to declare an interest at this point. I have utterly fallen in love with her. So I may not be quite objective here. I want to be her. Since I can’t be her, I want her to fall in love with me back, though it’s very clear that she’s never going to. And since I can neither be her nor have her, at the very least I want her part in the novel to go on forever. But even that turned out impossible (it’s a long book but not long enough), so it seems that the best I can hope for is a glorious string of sequels…. Perhaps, perhaps….. So what should I say about her? (Maybe not too much: you might fall for her too, and I don’t need the competition.) We meet her first at a boxing ring – she is a professional boxer, at the poignant moment of the preparation for her final fight, before a well-planned retirement into the relative obscurity of wifehood and motherhood and running a couple of businesses. In this opening encounter, as elsewhere in the novel, Roi exquisitely captures the complex chemistry of the fight: I’ve never been a fighter but afterwards I felt that I had been there, felt it. As things turn out, she doesn’t quite give up the fighting, so there are further chances to dip into this experience, but the senses in which Clarice is ‘a fighter’ soon become much more complex and nuanced. And she has other talents. She’s an artist – of both conventional media and tattooing, and at the start of the novel she runs a successful mechanic shop. She’s feisty certainly, and clearly exceptional, but I’m pleased to say that she’s no comic-book superhero. She’s flawed and fallible and funny. Her propensity to smart-ass gets her into trouble. She’s sometimes needy and vulnerable. She has bad days – and as she starts her journey through prison there is plenty of scope for those. She isn’t even reliably beautiful. She grows hair where she doesn’t want it. Prison uniform looks no better on her than it does on real women. She loses a front tooth and for several chapters afterwards has a grin like a hag. She’s no Lara Croft.
Which leads, in a way, to a puzzle in this book. It’s written (if you can believe the picture on the cover) by a man – and by the look of him, a cheerfully ‘he-him-his’ sort of man, at that. This authorship seemed unlikely. Clarice doesn’t read like a male fantasy. Her honed body is a visceral presence at the heart of the narrative, but there is no attempt to objectify her sexually. Her physical triumphs seem to be written from the inside out. Her vulnerabilities aren’t glamorised. Her injuries are painful and messy; her prison bra is uncomfortable. And the author seems almost indifferent to her external appearance – there are none of those lingering quasi-masturbatory passages about silky skin or pert breasts or the usual (oh-give-us-a-break!) green eyes. (Actually, this absence of description led to a disconcerting moment in the latter part of the book, when it finally dawned on me that Clarice is meant to be a white women, quite undoing the image I’d created myself). But more than that, she doesn’t have the psychology of a woman written by a man. As with most of the women I know, her femininity is secure but compellingly complex – quite unlike the parodies in most male crime novels. I did toy with the idea that perhaps the author was some George Eliot figure and playing a game that shouldn’t, these days, be necessary. I went so far as to seek an interview, supposing this might flush out the truth, and I could tease the author wickedly. Henry Roi declined my invitation. So instead I spoke to some authors who know him – he runs an established literary PR agency and his clients were happy to wax lyrical about him. But my delicate enquiries about his gender were met only with amusement. So I have it on good authority – unless his friends are well-drilled and having a good laugh – that the author of my heroine is indeed quite solidly a bloke. Should this worry me? I don’t know. Actually I find it rather engaging. Perhaps there’s hope yet for the other sex. After all, I’d never query a woman for writing a man.
Enough about Clarice (I could go on a lot longer, so don’t tempt me). Although Clarice is the pivotal figure and the primary reason why the book won’t let you go, there is a veritable world of interesting characters in With Her Fists, and Clarice’s relationship with each of them is effortlessly drawn. There are several I want to meet again – her clever, nerdish and loyal husband (who becomes increasingly solid and interesting as the book progresses); her cell mate Patty; Helen the enigmatic trustee who sells stolen medical supplies… Even the less attractive figures – like the gruesome Officer Portsmouth – seem worth another outing. It’s also full of places that don’t fade from the memory. I’ve seen European prisons – the two prisons in With Her Fists are nothing like those, but this is the USA, where criminal justice is always said to be more brutal, and I’m perfectly ready to believe in Roi’s depictions. I’m also ready to believe in Roi’s Biloxi and the countryside around it: there is a cinematic quality to his writing: I am sure I would know these places again if I saw them in the world.
I feel the need (if only to demonstrate that I have not been completely addled by my response to the central character) to add some or other clever critical point about this novel. None springs to mind, so I’ll make some boring ones instead. It’s raw in places. There were occasional moments when Clarice slipped from three to two dimensions and I wanted to flesh her out again. I don’t do horror, so those bits didn’t please me. But if I read it again – and I don’t doubt that I will – there’s nothing in this book that I’d want to skip or skim over. There are certainly some feel-good moments that I’ll be looking forward to revisiting, and knowing the ending will make the middle less painful. But I think, second time round, I’ll let myself think longer about the deeper moments of the book, and its darker subtext: the aspects of the book that qualify it for a blog about difficult and dangerous writing. Clarice and her family begin in a place of respectability. They may be unusual, but they are law abiding, complacent, upright citizens. By the end of the book they are not these things. The reader is carried with them through a transformation that is bleak and inexorable. Roi demonstrates – with a lightness of touch that belies its seriousness – the cruel one-way street down which convicted felons (whether rightly or wrongly convicted) are obliged to walk. All of them are victims of a criminal justice system that is often corrupt and always dehumanising. Despite their innocence, Clarice and her family are changed by this. For them – as for everyone in that system – there may be no way back.
The Hard Hat Book Site