The lost souls are on both sides of the bars in this death-row melodrama, the first novel from the author of works on societal issues (All God’s Children, 2007, etc.).
The prison is old. The row itself is below ground. The nameless narrator calls the place enchanted, for the inmates are under the spell of death. Executions in the lethal injection chamber are frequent. Mute since the age of 6, this narrator left a mental hospital at 18 and did something “too terrible to name” to a little boy. He found sanctuary in the prison library until, intolerably provoked, he beat another inmate to death and was transferred to solitary. There are too many gaps in the mute’s story to make him compelling. We know much more about his neighbor York, convicted of crimes against girls, again unspecified. His beautiful, mentally challenged mother had slept with half their small town; her visitors took advantage of York, too. He was born with syphilis. This detail is uncovered by the lady, as the death penalty investigator is known. (The author has worked in this field.) Acting for the defense to commute York’s sentence to life, she is up against a tight deadline and against York himself, who wants to die. Her sleuthing could have made a powerful novella, but there are too many distractions. We delve into the lady’s background, a mirror image of York’s. She’s painfully alone but looking for a mate, and she finds one in another death-row visitor, the fallen priest, a loner burdened by guilt. But Denfeld’s not done; she explores the prison culture, in which corruption is rampant and rape condoned. She is on much surer ground here than with her magic realist touches, such as the golden horses that live beneath the row and start running as an execution nears. Their role? “[B]eauty in the pain,” says the priest.
An over-the-top work with a number of preordained victims but no individuals.