Let me tell you a story,” a character named Kace declares in the prologue to Ivy Pochoda’s fifth novel, Sing Her Down. “It’s about two women, two women in a world of women, cut off from a world of men until they weren’t.… These women—their mistake was in thinking they burned with their own unique rage. Something deeper, darker than what the rest of us feel. Let me tell you—inside we all rage the same. It’s how we let it out that differs.”
It’s hard to argue with such a perspective, which sits at the center of Sing Her Down. The book follows two women who are freed from prison to disastrous results, offering a vivid look at what happens when anger engulfs people’s souls, drowning out all other feelings.
The result is one of the best crime novels in recent years.
The story begins in May 2020, when Florence “Florida” Baum is called into a classroom in the Arizona prison where she’s serving time. A corrections officer informs her that she’s being granted early release due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Florida is stunned. Convicted as an after-the-fact accomplice to a grisly murder—she drove the getaway car after her accomplice hurled a pipe bomb through a trailer window, killing two people—she isn’t remorseful, exactly, blaming her actions on the MDMA she had taken that day. At the same time, she has kept the true account of the crime from most of her fellow inmates.
If Florida feels relief at the news of her release, it’s quickly tempered by the realization that she’s not the only one to have her sentence cut short. Also freed is Diana Diosmary “Dios” Sandoval, who has been imprisoned for aggravated assault and is violent and unhinged—she “has barbed wire in her veins one second, mercury the next.” Dios is obsessed with Florida. She doesn’t buy her “I don’t belong here shit,” believing that she is in denial about who she is.
“Florida—I don’t care whether you get out or not,” Dios tells her. “And I don’t care who you lie to in order to do it. All I care about is you stop lying to yourself. You’re not rehabilitated. You don’t want to be. That’s another lie you tell yourself.”
Upon release, Florida and Dios are ordered to quarantine at a motel for two weeks. Desperate to get back to Los Angeles, however, Florida leaves early on a bus, only to find Dios on board. To get away, Florida disembarks in Ontario. Dios follows—but not before she murders a corrections officer who was on the bus as well.
Dios is determined to make Florida accept herself as a monster, reminding her that she savagely beat another inmate during a prison riot before Dios finally killed the woman: “I finished what you started. I closed that circle for you.”
In California, Pochoda introduces Lobos, a police detective assigned to investigate the corrections officer’s murder. Lobos is dealing with problems of her own; she’s being stalked by the husband she left after he physically assaulted her. “Her work suffered,” Pochoda writes. “She overreacted. She threatened people who had done little. She lashed out and accused. She lost sympathy for the abused and terrified. She reviled their weakness.”
Punctuating the novel are chapters featuring Kace, an inmate who hears voices: “Each victim of those inside these walls comes and lives in my head. I honor the dead. Your dead, her dead—it doesn’t fucking matter. I do the thing you forget to do, that you overlook. I care when you forget because I have no choice.”
Kace is skeptical of both Florida and Dios but fascinated by their story and the way it ends.
And the way it ends is powerful. The prologue may allude to the final confrontation, but the outcome still comes as a well-earned surprise. Pochoda is expert at building suspense; the novel never flags. And if Sing Her Down is sometimes a violent book—one scene involving a prisoner attacked with a fork is particularly hard to read—there’s nothing lurid or cheap about it.
Pochoda evokes downtown Los Angeles, where much of the novel is set, beautifully; the city becomes another character in the book. This is also very much a pandemic novel, and she does an excellent job evoking a city locked down and on edge. “People have been cooped up for more than two months,” Lobos observes at one point. “Now it’s turning warm. They’re blowing off steam. They’re broke and angry. They’re opening fire on one another for no good reason.”
Something similar might be said of the novel’s characters, with whom Pochoda takes great care. Florida had a troubled past before she participated in the firebombing; she endured some major trauma. It would have been easy to use this to exonerate her—look at the monster another monster made—but instead Pochoda gives Florida her own agency and guilt.
Pochoda also refuses to reduce Dios and Lobos to archetypes; both are fascinating characters with their own complexities. Dios is single-minded yet introspective and frighteningly intelligent; Lobos is tough but self-aware. Even Kace, a supporting player in the novel, is compelling in her own right; she activates the book’s innovative framework, which helps keep us involved.
Sing Her Down is a real accomplishment, a novel that interrogates the violence inherent in both the American carceral system and society as a whole. It places Pochoda squarely in the ranks of Los Angeles crime writers such as Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley, although her style is all her own. It’s also a captivating character study of two people living on the margins who, as Kace says, have failed to learn a necessary lesson: “All they know is the shame or the glory.… They don’t know that at the end of the day, the everyday is all there is.•