I had no sooner closed the back cover on this astonishing novel than I wanted to flip right back to the beginning and start again. In fact, I finished this book in one day because I simply could not put it down. From the very first page:
“I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway…I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor…I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.”
I knew I was hooked.
Denfeld so deftly balances the horrors of Death Row with lyrical storytelling that I often found myself breathless. How did she create something so beautiful out of people and situations so ugly?
Most of the book is told from the perspective of an inmate who remains nameless until the end. This anonymity and mystery surrounding his story (apart from his guilt) allows the author to interweave other stories without any sense of judgement.
“York knows the truth doesn’t matter in here. Inside, the lies you tell become the person you become. On the outside, sun and reality shrink people back to their actual size. In here, people grow into their shadows.”
Our other nameless narrator is “The Lady” trying to gather evidence to commute a prisoner’s death sentence. Her deep issues and personal back stories come to light slowly, complicating an already complicated quandary. All of this propels the plot.
But what’s even more brilliant than the storytelling is the way Denfeld digs in to the environment of Death Row. Without preaching or excusing or solving, she lays bare this enchanted place in a way that broke my heart. I was captivated by the idea that some of these characters have seen the flight of their own souls.
“My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a curtain over a window. I ran after it, but it never came back. It left me alone on a wet stinking mattress. It left me alone in the choking dark. It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.”
Once the soul has flown, there’s nothing to stop the bad thoughts from taking over.
Warning: this novel contains almost unbearable scenes of violence, often against children, but the pain is worth the price of reading.
For more thoughtful critiques of this brilliant debut, I encourage you to visit: