The setup for Rene Denfeld’s stunning debut novel, The Enchanted, sounds like a kind of dark, old-fashioned fairy tale. A moldering stone prison contains a multitude of monsters: serial killers, rapists, and others whose crimes are unknown to us. Many of these men are lost souls and some are, like our narrator, locked away in the castle’s dungeon — death row. Most of the castle’s guards do their best to oversee and protect the prisoners, but a few are ideally positioned to abuse, exploit the system, and exert physical force upon the prisoners to satisfy their own desires. A fallen priest ministers to the souls of the condemned. Finally, at the center of the story, an unnamed Lady does the unenviable job of trying to save the men on death row by researching their pre-prison lives. As each execution date nears, the Lady works on behalf of attorneys who will assemble last-ditch arguments to halt the executions of the death row inmates. Sometimes they are successful.
The Enchanted explores the bleakest, most disturbing roots of violent crime, yet somehow manages to summon deep humanity and compassion out of the harsh reality of prison experience. “This is an enchanted place,” the novel’s unnamed narrator says of his prison home. “Others don’t see it but I do…. The most wonderful enchanted things happen here — the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time.” Like many of the characters and themes at work here, our narrator is a play of opposites. The way in which he experiences time, for example, is both unending and finite. Doing time is an act of waiting for the end of a sentence, but all the ways in which we mark time lose meaning when one is serving several life sentences in a row. The narrator has been waiting out his life in institutions in one form or another since childhood. His time has seemed to stretch on forever yet, at the start of the novel, his execution lurks just over the horizon. He is suddenly desperate to share the story of the prison and its population, both chained and free, and he tells a very good story indeed.
The narrator’s voice is lyrical, magical and insightful, and was one of the many joys of reading this book. Nothing escapes him. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that broke so many rules to such great effect: though the narrator is a reclusive man who hides beneath his scratchy wool blanket and ventures out to collect food and library books, his mind and voice move around unfettered. His attention moves freely through cages and walls, bounces back and forth from reality to myth, and pops in and out of the minds of the people around him. His narration takes us from the prison and its dangerous power shifts to the countryside, where the Lady uncovers facts that threaten to break her. The narrator’s tale has a kind of poetic hyperawareness that I loved, and no detail is too small to be counted. His perception even stretches into the foundations of the prison itself, where he hears tiny men banging hammers on pipes and restless, subterranean horses threatening to break free with seismic fury.
Part of me wants to say that this novel, with its stories tucked within other stories, reminds me of nested dolls. An image from the novel, of locked cages inside other locked cages, serves far better: air and imagination move freely between the bars, but physical bodies cannot. To use the words of our narrator, whose magical thinking may be the thing that keeps him from going crazy, “What matters in prison is not who you are but what you want to become. This is the place of true imagination.” Denfield reveals layers of humanity over time, even for very monstrous characters, and The Enchanted is a exuberant and sometimes uncomfortable exercise in empathy. This novel is so ambitious in how it explores the roots of violence, so gorgeous in its execution, so unique and masterful in its storytelling that I’d like to recommend similar books, but I really just want everyone to go read this one.
A potential drawback, though: The Enchanted delves into and describes some of the worst things that human beings are capable of doing to other human beings. If you can imagine the kinds of violent experiences that might create a serial killer, you can imagine some of what you might find in the novel. This isn’t a lighthearted read, and it may be triggering for some. Denfeld herself used to do the same work as the Lady in the novel, and drew her depictions from years of work in that field. There’s real brutality described here, sometimes rendered in scene, but there’s also the possibility for redemption. The Enchanted is a difficult novel at points but, amazingly, it is not a cynical one. It is also the best book I’ve read so far this year.
Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.