DiscoverContemporary Fiction

Though We Have No Merits


Worth reading 😎

Spirituality Is The New Black - the spiritual and psychological journey of Zolly Berns set in a Chicago federal prison in the 1980s.

I picked up this book right after reading the blurb that reminded me of Orange Is A New Black, which I am a big fan of: the book is about the life of inmates in a low-security mixed genders prison. Apart from the general prison setting, I didn't really know what to expect from Though We Have No Merits, hence I went into it with an open mind. 

This book deals with the spiritual and psychological journey of inmate Zolly Berns, a Jewish man from Chicago. At the beginning of the book, Zolly is a bar owner, but this changes when he is incarcerated because he refuses to testify against some friends who hang around his bar to talk business. During his time in this federal prison, where the feds put him hoping this would pressure him to talk, Zolly re-discovers religion. He hadn't been religious for a long time and he finds that, during his time in prison, religion can help him make sense of why he is there and what should be his next steps. 

Despite the prison setting, this book lacks the character development and psychology that I would have expected. Although the inmates do deal with the temptations, boredom and feuds that you would expect in a prison, the book lacked any juicy information about why or for how long the other inmates were in the prison and whether they were going to manage to transform their lives upside down once their time in there was going to be over. It has to be said that the character of Zolly and his psychology were dealt with in-depth. The background theme of whether he was innocent or guilty animated the whole book, which I liked a lot and I think was not over-done in this book. 

The themes of crime and spirituality meshed perfectly in this book. In fact, Zolly turned to law and religion, both from friends' advice and by praying, to understand who was in the wrong and what he was comfortable doing to return to normal life. Ultimately, during all his time spent in prison, Zolly reflects whether personal truth or self-interest is more important to him. He does this in multiple ways but the struggle is ongoing all throughout his incarceration. The constant duality of this character and his need to stick with his decision once he's made one is what made Zolly so interesting. 

Overall, I thought the themes in the book were great and I liked how the story made me reflect on the character of Zolly and his past and future actions. The book had the downside that, apart from Zolly and his spiritual and psychological journey, the reader didn't get to know about the life story of the other characters i.e. Zolly's friends in prison. I would recommend this book to someone interested in 1980s Chicago-related fiction, because of its historical point of view, but I wouldn't recommend it to someone just interested in a prison or a crime narrative.  

Reviewed by

I am a neuroscience PhD student but I have always been a passionate reader and I have read many different book genres. I also write and have done for a very long time. I would definitely say reading and writing are two of my favourite activities, and I don't think this will change anytime soon.


About the author

I wrote "The Child Who Returned to Her Mother" when I read about the arrest of some Russian spies. The news report puzzled and intrigued me. I wanted more details, but the article was only a cursory recitation. So, I had to imagine the answers to my own questions, which led to this short story. view profile

Published on June 23, 2020

100000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Reviewed by