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At first sight this looks like a not-that-fictional account of a Russian prison, told by someone who knows about the country’s politics, opposition, and prisons.

The storyline however is not as straight forward and the “incredible events” don’t refer to the treatment of inmates or their stories, but rather to the element of magical realism in the novel.

Incredible Events in Women's Cell Number 3

We meet Anya as she is brought into a detention centre. The reason for her ten-day sentence is having taken part in a protest.

Political protests and Russian prisons are something the author Kira Yarmysh knows about first hand. As the press secretary for Alexei Navalny, the opposition in Russia, she’s been arrested several times and has spent time in prison before living in exile now.

We follow as Anya goes through the routine of paperwork and having all her belongings checked before being taken to her cell, Cell Number Three, shared with five other women.

At first, it seems Anya is different from all the delinquents she has been put into a cell with. However, we slowly find out that each of them has their story, and they are no more criminals than Anya. They have equally short sentences and are in for petty crimes such as driving without a licence. Most of them are quite young, some married (one for the third time); one has addiction problems, another finances her lifestyle and aesthetic surgeries by sleeping with men.

Anya’s own life is revealed in flashbacks ranging from youth at home to university years. We learn about her rebel years, her version of a ménage à trois, and the act that almost cost her the internship at the ministry of Foreign Affairs, though it all has little to do with her current life or why she ended up in this cell.

While we are taken through the day-to-day life inside the detention centre – breakfast, lunch, the loud radio, the hour for phones, exercise time, showers on Thursdays – weird things start happening at night. Or at least, Anya is seeing or imagining them. Neither her nor us know how much of this is real. And this is the disappointing part of the book: It takes what was an uneventful but interesting account of almost true facts into a different and unnecessary realm.

This part of the story is further developed towards the end of the book, as Anya’s cellmates are being released and she is left alone waiting for her own release date and unfortunately becomes the heart of the story instead of focusing on the repetitive every day of the prison cell.

The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number Three, by Kira Yarmysh is available for purchase now, released 1st June 2023. Publisher: Profile Books. IBSN-13:  9781800817531

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