The death of a prison lifer reverberates both within and outside the walls in Yaw’s debut novel.
Moses and Jorge both committed murder young, and they’ve been incarcerated for decades in grim Hardenberg Correctional Facility. But amid the brutalities and harsh, hypermasculine codes of prison, these cellmates and friends have carved out a kind of uneasy peace for themselves. Tough-minded, impulsive Moses is entrusted with cellblock mail delivery, and as the novel begins, he's pursuing his intellectual ambitions by taking a course in literature, with help from the civilian employee who supervises the mail. He’s the caged-cat sort of prisoner, smart but profoundly damaged, and he relies on Jorge to keep him calm and in some semblance of control; the older man is his mentor, his mollifier and his spur to continued conscience. Gentle and ever more frail, Jorge tends tamed songbirds in his cell and adores his daughter, Gina, who’s managed to get an Ivy League education and a plum job (avec Emmy) in network news. But his mind is failing, and sometimes now, horrifyingly, he can’t distinguish between Gina and the girl he strangled all those years ago. When, one night, Jorge hangs himself, his death throws Moses into the kind of grief-stricken mental and moral disarray that, in a setting like Hardenberg, has quick, drastic consequences. Meanwhile, outside the walls, we see the way that Jorge’s passing—as well as regret and anguish and separation in all their forms—affects both his daughter and her wealthier, more privileged friends Shell and Ellen. The scenes of prison life—like the harrowing late-novel moment when Moses entertains his first face-to-face visitor in 35 years—are compelling, but the book is more diffuse and less persuasive in the storylines set outside.
All in all, an intriguing debut.