Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Sing Her Down by Ivy Pochoda is a story in which female characters prevail and tell a story of escape during the 2020 pandemic. Violence is the main ingredient of this thriller, mystery, and western mix.
Sing Her Down by Ivy Pochoda
Sing Her Down by Ivy Pochoda artfully intertwines the narratives of four characters into a complex tapestry. Set against the backdrop of the 2020 pandemic, the story unfolds the peculiar journey of inmate Florence ‘Florida’ Baum, who intriguingly plots an escape even on the brink of her release. Pochoda masterfully employs shifting perspectives to flesh out the grim realities of prison life and the pursuit that defines Florida’s narrative. Florida’s character development, deeply influenced by her enigmatic cellmate Dios, explores the repercussions of youthful naivety and borderline legal actions.
The narrative features contrasting characters, such as Kace and Lobos, that enrich the story, showcasing the novel’s strength in gender representation. Pochoda’s writing style marries efficiency and poetic flair while demonstrating adept manipulation of time and viewpoint shifts. The narrative is punctuated by striking scenes contrasting violent episodes with their physical settings, creating powerful and aesthetically pleasing juxtapositions. While character motivations might occasionally blur, Sing Her Down is a thought-provoking read that promises a unique literary experience teeming with intrigue and emotion.
Sing Her Down is the fifth novel by New Yorker writer Ivy Pochoda. Her previous novels were received auspiciously by critics and readers alike, especially regarding the construction of characters and settings.
Sing Her Down is a choral novel that weaves together the voices of four characters in a complex narrative scheme. Sometimes the characters speak from their perspective, sometimes from the narrative voice, and sometimes through other characters. This method allows for a thorough exploration of the characters’ points of view throughout the story and effectively manages the flow of information.
The story begins in May 2020, during the pandemic. Arizona prison system officials summon Florence Baum to inform her that she would be released in a few days due to the COVID sanitary crisis. Yet, Florence, known as Florida by her fellow inmates, starts planning an escape despite her imminent freedom.
The novel, an effective blend of the thriller, mystery and western genres, is divided into two parts. The first part depicts Florida’s life in prison, emphasizing the daily violence typical of that environment. The second part focuses on the pursuit Florida endures from God.
Florida landed in jail after an event where her youthful naivety led her to become an accomplice in an arson crime. Furthermore, perhaps due to her immaturity, Florida was involved in other episodes that skirted the edges of illegality.
Florida’s escape is influenced mainly by Dios, her cellmate in prison for some time. Dios, a college student from Queens studying in New England, is an intriguing character due to her violent and insistent nature.
It is clear from the novel that Dios establishes an oppressive relationship with Florida, pressuring her into specific actions. Dios’ manipulative behavior and stalking of Florida define their relationship. Dios landed in jail for aggravated assault.
Despite Dios’ importance in the story, I struggled to understand her character because her motivation, aside from exerting power over Florida, is always challenging.
In contrast, there is Kace, a prisoner who hears the voices of her deceased comrades. Through her, we learn about an episode that illuminates the relationship between Florida and Dios. The story revolves around Tina, who experienced a brutal beating by Florida and was ultimately killed by Dios.
Finally, we have the character of Lobos, the detective tasked with locating both Florida and Dios in California, where much of the story takes place.
For the rest of her life she will fall through this space in purgatorial suspension.
Notably, the novel’s main characters are women, and no male character carries much weight. As such, Sing Her Down excels on the Bechdel test, which measures gender representation in fiction. The only significant male character is Easton, Lobos’ partner, about whom we know virtually nothing.
What I enjoyed most about the novel was the narrative voice’s style. The prose is efficient and occasionally reaches poetic heights, especially in descriptions of the book’s most violent scenes. The author expertly controls the characters and situations, adeptly managing shifts in time and point of view. Pochoda proves to be a highly skilled writer.
Another noteworthy aspect is the novel’s setting creation. Pochoda has a unique ability to create scenarios that don’t always naturally align with the story’s internal dynamics. Two scenes are stunning, even though they involve violent or morally reprehensible actions. One is when Florida and Dios encounter a group of homeless people in California.
The other is when Florida submerges her head in the poll at her mother’s house, an action usually associated with pleasure, but not in this case. I found these contrasts between the physical setting and the profound meaning of the characters’ thoughts and actions compelling and aesthetically satisfying.
Something I really enjoyed about the novel was finding a corrido. Throughout the story Dios constantly hums a song in Spanish. In the novel, it is said that this is a narcocorrido, but it is not. The Corrido de Macario Leyva was written in the first half of the 20th century, many years before the appearance of narcocorridos. There is a version recorded by Antonio Aguilar in the 1970s. The version I like best is the one by Ramón Ayala. I leave it here for you to put music to Dios’ thoughts:
Ivy Pochoda’s Sing Her Down is a beautifully complex novel, deftly exploring multiple perspectives and weaving them into a rich tapestry of intrigue and emotion. While it has some challenges in character motivation clarity, the prose’s compelling elegance and the distinctive creation of settings more than compensate. It’s a solid three-star read, engaging and thought-provoking, promising a distinct literary journey worth embarking on.