Author: Rene Denfeld
Published by: HarperCollins
Summary from Goodreads:
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.
Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest, and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honor and corruption-ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.
Beautiful and transcendent, The Enchanted reminds us of how our humanity connects us all, and how beauty and love exist even amidst the most nightmarish reality.
What I liked:
Rene Denfeld is not just an author. She’s an artist. Her debut novel, The Enchanted, is a beautiful and haunting observation of life, death, and survival, and what place is better to observe this than a forgotten prison full of lost souls. Taking us into a correctional facility, Denfeld describes the hopelessness and cruelty of prison in the beautiful, silent observations of death row inmate, Arden, whose crimes are awful beyond description. Arden is a dreamer, and perhaps quite insane. He lives within the pages of books and, although has committed awful crimes, is very humane. He is probably the most perceptive character in the book and is able to read the other characters and his surroundings like no one else. This wonderful ability is contrasted with his desperate and unbearably sad situation in a way that is both stunning to read and extremely moving.
One of the things that I love about this novel is that Denfeld gives names to the prisoners, but reduces the prison employees–the warden, the priest, the guard, and most importantly, the lady– to basic nouns, removing their names and their identities. Denfeld reverses the general convention where inmates are thought of as faceless numbers and it is the people on the “outside” who become faceless. I think she does this in part, at least, to demonstrate that we all struggle with morality, we all face trials, and we are all prisoners to death. The lady is one who is a foil to death row inmate, York. They both face extraordinarily similar upbringings, childhoods wracked by abuse and misfortune. The lady is easily interchangeable with York apart from the fact that she made the choice to turn her situation around and make something of herself instead of choosing violence. The Enchanted is a story of how humans deal with the situations they face and the consequences and the shame that accompany our actions.
What I would have liked to see:
There is one character whose story was so touching and tragic: the white haired boy. He is a prime example of a victim of corruption, greed, and abuse. He is a target and a scapegoat and it is in his story that we see the most violent inner workings of the prison life. I would have liked to get to know him better. We observe him through a 3rd person narrator, but we don’t really get to understand him as we do Arden and the lady.
The same goes for the warden. The warden faces death up close in both his work life and his personal life. He is a compassionate and lonely character who I would have enjoyed getting to know better. But the story wasn’t about him and I liked that his story, although also very sad, was secondary to the struggle of the lady and the hope of Arden.
Overall, this book was a wonderful read. It’s short and compact, but vast in its descriptions and observations. I give is 4.5 stars out of 5. I loved it and I’ve already got it set aside to be reread. I don’t think it’s a novel that can be fully digested in one single read. It’s one for a reread and then another reread and perhaps many more after that.