The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (Harper, March 4th, 2013)-“The most wonderful enchanted things happen here-the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.”
If you know anything about the prison system in this country, it’s undeniably broken. There are a lot of people trying very hard to make it better, but it’s an uphill battle, and one that has a long way to go. That said, for a book that puts a magnifying glass to this issue, The Enchanted is a surprisingly hopeful book. I read The Enchanted in one night, and as I write this, it’s still got me near tears, but I digress. The book is narrated by a mute inmate on death row who imagines golden horses snorting and shuffling their hooves beneath the prison and small men with tiny hammers within its walls. A man on the block, only known as York, will be up for execution soon, and a death row investigator, only referred to as “the lady” has come to find out if it’s possible to get York off of death row. Not out of prison, just out of death row. Meanwhile, a fallen priest administers comfort to the inmates and contemplates his own past, and his growing attraction to the lady, as he helps in her investigation. The prison warden, emotionally broken from his wife’s struggle with terminal illness, and weary from his attempts to improve conditions for the men in his prison, must settle for providing small kindnesses to these forgotten men, and in the shadows, a corrupt prison guards pulls inmates strings like those of a puppet, far beneath the well- meaning, but distracted gaze of the warden.
As the lady methodically investigates York’s past, she discovers parallels to her own too obvious to ignore, and begins to identify with this monster that was created by tragedy and circumstance. Her need to reconcile the darkness within herself to the light she so desperately craves becomes all encompassing. Surely her past, things undeniably beyond her control, does not define her, and surely there is wonder to be found, and beauty. Wonder and beauty are not usually to be found amongst the men in the prison, but our narrator manages to find it in the smallest of things and he rises above the ovens that turn the dead to ash, the rotten food that has caused teeth to fall out and bones to turn brittle, the abuses that the stronger heap upon the weak so often, and the infernal machine that deals death from its tubes and dials at the prick of a needle. These are the forgotten, the abused, the mentally ill, and yes, even the evil among us, and while The Enchanted doesn’t look away from what these men have done, and the suffering of their victims, it does reveal the possibility, and necessity, of compassion for those that society has failed; criminal and victim.
“Even if the outside saw another nameless number, even if the mattresses of my life said just another, the warden saw something different. He saw what had been done to me. He saw me. And in that moment, I mattered.”
Among the horrors of a place such as this, there is humanity, and The Enchanted is the kind of book that will change you for reading it, if you let it, certainly for the better. In fact, it made me weep, and as dark as it is, there is hope, and a light at the end, even if it’s hard to see, or imagine. Rene Denfeld’s prose is poetic, and strangely enough, is made even more beautiful by the horrors that it describes. She herself is a death row investigator, so is more than qualified to write a book like this, and what a book. The Enchanted will break your heart in two and leave you the better for it. It’s a brutal, heart wrenching, and even, at times, magical book, and to be able find beauty and hope among such sorrow is an enchanted thing indeed.