This is a surreal, fantastical tale set in a crumbling prison. It’s about life and death, corruption, and a little bit of love. Our narrator is a prisoner on death row – both his name and his crime are kept from us until the end. We learn that he is a selective mute, a voracious reader, in constant hiding. He paints a picture of the prison as a sort of mystical fortress. A place with things crawling in the walls and golden horses running beneath. There is magic and horror intermingled. He tells us stories he cannot possibly know, conversations he cannot have heard. About a white-haired boy, about a fallen priest, and a lady.
The lady is a death row investigator. She is at work on the case of another death row inmate, York. With a few weeks remaining before it is York’s time to die, she is hired to find out if there’s any way to change his sentence from death to life imprisonment, any extenuating circumstances that have been missed. York is different though because York wants to die. But the lady pushes on into York’s past, the secrets of his childhood. Often disturbing, usually tragic, sometimes with surprising parallels to what we learn of the lady’s own childhood.
This is a strange little book. It’s hard to say what’s real and what’s not, and I’m not sure if we really need to even make that differentiation. When your narrator is an insane criminal, you can’t always trust him. It makes for a tense and sometimes upsetting read. Prison isn’t a kind place, although there are unexpected kindnesses within its walls. And some real horrors too.
Mostly, this is a story about how people deal with tragedy, with abuse, with all the terrible things a life can throw at them. How do we respond and what makes some people turn into monsters while others don’t? Ultimately, it seems that Denfeld (who actually is a death row investigator in real life) is trying to show us that all prison stories are tragic ones. Sometimes the monster comes to the prison and sometimes it grows there.