Title: The Enchanted
Author: Rene Denfeld
Genre: Adult Literary Fiction
Synopsis: A wondrous and redemptive debut novel, set in a stark world where evil and magic coincide, The Enchanted combines the empathy and lyricism of Alice Sebold with the dark, imaginative power of Stephen King. “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.” The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries magical visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs, with the devastating violence of prison life.
I think it’s a bit hard to put into words what this book means in the greater scheme of things. I think, for me, this is a social critique. Denfeld weaves a soft sort of unpreachy observation of society and the little value we place in human lives that are not ‘normal’. Our story is narrated by a death row inmate but he is sort of omnipresent, he tells us what happens outside and he tells us what others are feeling. There are elements of magical realism but they simply exist because he’s mentally unwell and this is how he sees the world. Things like the pipes of the aqueducts becomes little men that hammer and torment him.
We follow The Lady, a death row investigator that attempts to get convicts off death row and moved to life sentences. She’s very good at what she does because she’s so damaged. Denfeld herself works as an investigator for death row inmates so all of the research and experiences feels very genuine and unflinching.
The target of this story is how society manages (or doesn’t) mental health and the vital role it plays in incarcerated people. Be it that they are a product of the environment or be it that they are genuinely suffering with a mental illness is a matter of digging into the past and the past is seldom pretty.
This is a short but hard to read book not because of the narrative but because of the content. There is rape and murder, there’s child abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, lingering trauma of past abuse – you name it, it has it. This book is as dark as you would expect for a book on prisoners. This is my second prison-centered book this year, earlier I read Orange is the New Black and whereas Piper Kerman’s memoir focuses on a lot more of economic disparity, The Enchanted is focused on mental instability and how it feeds the prison system. It speaks of the corruption of the prison system and how it aims to dehumanized those with little humanity left to begin with. It’s sad, there’s a sort of feeling of helplessness in the hard-hitting truth. Those who genuinely want to help those in these conditions feel the wear and tear of it and eventually quit. You can’t deal with death row or prisoners in general if you’re a normal person yourself, you’ve got to be a bit fucked up to stomach it.
It asks certain questions like are these horrible killers/rapists the product of a highly fucked up childhood that robs them of consciousness or are they inherently evil? Why are certain people able to function after a horrible childhood (The Lady) and others completely unravel (York)? I think all people need to read books about prison and prison life, we don’t like to talk about it and it’s a touchy subject that is lined with ever changing politics but it’s still something to be read.
I think Denfeld gives us a sticky horrible subject and uses the eyes of the insane to paint the picture of what leads children to become monsters. A very haunting read.