I first read about this book on Huffington Post months ago and I spent weeks searching every bookshop to track down a copy. Of course I could have just clicked a few buttons on a certain website but I’m trying to avoid it. By the time I actually found a copy IRL I was too far into The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August to finally sink my teeth in. Suffice it to say that I powered through that novel in order to finally read the book I’d been desperate to get my hands on. Every day beforehand, I was drawn to the beautiful, metallic cover art and prayed it would be as delightful as it sounded.
Rene Denfeld has spent the majority of her life working with the men convicted of serious crimes. In her first work of fiction, The Enchanted, she draws upon her experiences as a death row investigator to tell the story of a rundown American prison. Narrated by a nameless inmate, it brings together the interweaving stories of the many inmates and employees. The most prominent of these being the connected stories of York, a convict ready to face his fate; the lady, an investigator hired to get him off; and the disgraced priest she is drawn to and who is secretly falling in love with her.
The Enchanted is, without a doubt, a fucking beautifully written book. Denfeld is able to use the English language in such an mind-boggling way that even the horrific events that are being described seem wondrous. There is plenty of room to make comparisons with Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones and the overall effect of the novel is equally haunting. Denfeld’s lyrical prose is some of the most exciting work I’ve read in a long time. I finished it a few days ago and I’ve already lost count of the people I’ve tried to force to read it. Seriously I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m fucking obsessed.
Our narrator is an avid reader who uses the scant selection of books available to him to escape his current situation and the events that led to his incarceration. He finds the freedom that he both cannot achieve and cannot handle within the work of these author’s. Our convict has further removed himself from the atrocities of prison life by establishing himself in a fantastical world where golden horses run free, small men hammer in the walls and flibber gibbets feed off the warmth of death. Don’t worry if this all sounds a bit Roald Dhal to you: The Enchanted is kind of a mix between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Green Mile.
The narrator uses his deep understanding of human nature and his handy omniscience to analyse the behaviour of the other inhabitants of the prison. Most importantly the convicted killer York who has agreed to give up his fight for reprieve and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the lady has been hired to do exactly the opposite of that. Through her investigation, the lady looks back over both York and her own difficult upbringings and asks the question of what determines the kind of person we will turn out to be. Her personal experiences allow her to see the person behind the horrible crime and understand some of the factors that push people into such despicable acts.
The Enchanted introduces us to that moral grey area between good and bad and asks the reader to decide who they should sympathise with. There is humanity amongst those who are guilt of carrying out the most inhumane acts and, vice versa, those in positions of power are easily corrupted. The Enchanted is dealing with identity and reality: the parts of themselves that people show and the parts that they keep hidden. Both the narrator and the lady have the ability to see beyond an unpleasant exterior and find the story and beauty hidden underneath.
Denfeld introduces us to some contemptible people and holds a mirror up to a corrupt and dangerous world of prison life. However, through her enthralling prose she shows us that there are two sides to every story. We discover that no matter how clear someone’s tale may seem there is always something lurking beneath the surface to change everything. Nobody’s story is complete. Even stuck in the dark, damp dungeon, our narrator is able to use his imagination to transcend his miserable existence and become part of something exquisite. Once I’d entered the enchanted world I didn’t exactly find myself in a hurry to leave it.