This is the debut novel of Rene Denfeld, and what a debut it is. I’d never heard of her, or her book, but the moment I saw it on the shelf at the bookshop, I was drawn to it.
At just over 230 pages, it did not take me long to read. And I can honestly say I have never read anything quite like it. Ms Denfeld displays superb skill in crafting her story with hauntingly beautiful prose, sparingly used. Together with 'The Vagrant’, this was my other favourite of 2015. How coincidental that the ‘protagonists’ in both do not speak.
‘ Monsters aren’t born – they are created.
A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum-security prison. We don’t know his crime. We don’t know his name. But he watches and he listens.
A lady investigator unravels unspeakable crimes.
She does not let men go to their deaths without a fight.
And the prisoner wonders … how do we stop men like me from happening?’
The story is told in first person by a nameless, mute prisoner; we are not ‘introduced’ to him by name. He is on death row, the dungeon, along with the other condemned. He never sets foot out of his cell, and yet it is he who tells us all that transpires. Ms Denfeld has handled the magical realism in such a seamless, believable way that at no point was I jolted out of the story. It’s as if his time in the prison – from being with the ‘general population’ to being shut in the dungeon – has given him the ability to see-all and know-all. His ‘voice’, although simple, is breathtakingly lyrical …
‘This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do … I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air … I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky … I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs …
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here … I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.’
In the prison, the only ones who have been named are the prisoners and corrupt guards; the other characters are labelled in a general way – ‘the lady’, ‘the priest’, ‘the warden’ – as if they are the ‘unimportant’ ones. The main story concerns another prisoner, York, who will soon be executed. Unlike many of the others, he wants to die. He’s a killer, and he makes no excuses …
‘He says … he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does … “If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says. “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense. But it doesn’t. It never does.”’
The ‘lady’ is a death row investigator, a job similar to Denfeld's, which she explained in an interview – “I dig deep into the histories of men and women facing execution, trying to understand why they did such terrible things." The character in the book does the same thing, trying to find any shred of evidence that might result in a stay of execution. But it is more than a mere job to her; she seems to genuinely care for the men awaiting execution, trying her hardest to find that bit of evidence that will commute the death penalty to life imprisonment.
‘The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious. Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marvelling at all the beauty and pain in the world.’
The horror of prison life is evoked, as is to be expected, but there are no unnecessary, graphic descriptions; Ms Denfeld leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. I liked the lack of stereotypical characters; for example, the warden, although a believer in the death penalty, is a compassionate man who treats the inmates with care.
There are other stories that are woven in, about the lady, the priest, the warden, a new inmate, the narrator … Like York’s story, they are all sad. Yet, despite the bleak subject matter, and overarching sadness, there are moments of hope and salvation, which Denfeld communicates in a way that neither justifies the crimes nor belittles the victims.
To begin with, I found York to be an irritating specimen, but as his story unfolded, I started to see the person behind the criminal, and my heart went out to the little boy he’d been, who had been subjected to undeserving awfulness.
Although the narrator is in prison for doing a ‘bad thing’ – the details of which we are never really told – and he ends up in the dungeons for doing another ‘bad thing’, I found myself caring for this broken soul. He talks about those who have been violated, who, like him, have had ‘the edges of [their] body blurred’ … ‘When your body stops being corporeal, your soul has no place to go, so it finds the next window to escape. My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a flapping curtain over a window. I ran after it, but it never came back. It left me alone on wet stinking mattresses. It left me alone in the choking dark. It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.’
The image of a 6-year-old running after his soul must surely be one of the most distressing thoughts imaginable.
The thing that first drew me to the narrator was his love of books, the written word. When he’d first entered prison, he did not read well, but, utilising the prison library, he laboured over the words he did know, and gradually improved his reading ability.
‘When I first started reading, I didn’t know how to sound some words. I would whisper them inside my head. Sioux, paisley, ruche. Obsolete, rubric, crux. How do you say those words? How do they sound when others say them? Are they as pretty as they sound inside my head? … I decided that in the end, it doesn’t matter. In my mind, the words sound right. They chase each other around like boats on a lake after dusk …’
Now, I am not, for one moment, saying that we have to feel sorry for criminals, especially those guilty of heinous crimes. Before reading this book, I never spared a thought for the criminal. But now, while not agreeing with, or condoning crime of any sort, and still firmly believing that criminals get what they deserve in the sentences that are meted out, I find myself wondering why; what happened in their past, especially their growing-up years, that has made them behave as they do? In my opinion, this intense, intelligent story, makes you think about how monsters are created, and how we – society – could stop it from happening. How far should we go to step up and take some collective responsibility instead of turning a blind eye? In Rene Denfeld’s words, “Without empathy, we have no soul.”