By Rene Denfeld
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99 hardback, £6.99 ebook
Out 13 March, 2014
Never have a book’s title and its style been so perfectly matched, for The Enchanted reads like an incantation: it spun me into its web and held me there tightly. Like all good spells, it left me altered and haunted.
I can’t remember the last book that felt less like an act of reading and more like one of listening. It is as if Denfeld were Homer and I a Greek peasant sitting near the campfire, straining to catch every twist and turn. She, too, speaks of epic battles between good and evil, about the violence that men do and its ramifications. Her novel concerns all that is most awful in the world, and it’s as bruising as it is beautiful.
The novel is set on Death Row in a high security prison somewhere in the United States. Though it takes place in the present day it has a timeless quality. The prison is old, made of cold, damp stone, the food is filthy and inedible, and its prisoners so debilitated — the unnamed narrator has wispy grey hair and yellowed, untrimmed nails — that I was reminded of Dumas and Dickens.
Denfeld, who has written several acclaimed books of nonfiction, works as a death penalty investigator, and has put her experience to good use. The book feels authentic, from its language to its descriptions of corruption and prison violence. She wears her authority lightly and her subtlety is commendable. So potent is the air of menace she conjures that we don’t need to witness the rapes and the beatings in graphic detail. The same holds true for the back stories of her prisoners. Almost to a man, her killers are childhood victims of sexual abuse, but it’s something she manages to evoke in all its heartbreaking pathos without adding unbearable, sensational details.
You may guess the identity of the narrator before the novel’s close. He has been driven insane by life, and committed crimes so unspeakable that he considers himself a monster, as do his fellow inmates, which is a bit rich. Yet it’s clear from the gentle way the prison’s warden treats him that this man is as much to be pitied as reviled.
His original crime is never spelled out, and it makes for horrifying speculation, since what could be worse than the stories he recounts? Than the man who cuts open the belly of his drug mule to retrieve his stash — even though it’s his five year old son?
Denfeld embeds us so deeply into the narrator’s psyche that we are glad not to know for it relieves us of the burden of hating someone we’ve come to care about. Throughout she makes us understand that acts of violence are often not random, but engendered by a long chain of circumstance and that a person’s life can be ruined before they leave the womb.
The other main character, The Lady, shares her creator’s profession. She has a terrible past that parallels the awful childhood of York, the condemned prisoner whose story she’s been sent to investigate, but her trajectory shows that similar beginnings need not lead to identical endings.
Denfeld does not miss the opportunity to weigh in on the absurdity of the death row system which sentences a man to die and then, when he says, “Actually yes, I’d like that,” sends in a cavalry’s worth of lawyers and placard-wielding protesters arguing for mercy. She also points out that we remember killers better than we recall their victims. “What if the world forgot Hitler and remembered all the names of his victims? What if we immortalised the victims?”
“This is an enchanted place,” begins the narrator. Later, explaining that the worst baby killer or rapist can continue to beat and rape his way to power behind bars, he says, “What matters in prison is not who you are but what you want to become. This is the place of true imagination.”
As is this novel. By rights it should be grim and unendurable. Yet it is absolutely magical. Denfeld sugar-coats nothing, but her appreciation of beauty and her deep compassion for mankind shines out of every page. The Enchanted is enchanting.