A wondrous and redemptive debut novel, set in a stark world where evil and magic coincide, The Enchanted combines the empathy and lyricism of Alice Sebold with the dark, imaginative power of Stephen King. “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.” 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 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, honesty 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.
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My first glance at the galley covers for this novel, I thought Rorschach ink blots -- then I saw the significant golden horses galloping from the darkness. A fairy tale of an enchanted place with golden horses? Only if seen through the eyes of a mute psychopath who spins gold out of cobwebs in the bowels of a dilapidated stone prison. He imagines his death-row cell an enchanted world where he can magically float up through the walls in the steam of his breath, or step into a book and escape into the sunlight. He is surrounded by monsters, convicted of unspeakable violent crimes, but these inmates fear the mute; he is the most fearful monster in this prison, and the narrator of Denfeld's novel.
Rene Denfeld "is a licensed investigator who specializes in death penalty work. She is known for her diligent, informed and in-depth investigations. Rene has extensive training and experience in subjects including FASD, drug effects and cognitive impairments." [Rene Denfeld web page] This is her first novel and she sticks to the advice, write what you know. In an interview with Harper Books, Denfeld characterized her novel thus: "What does it mean to be human?" Whether or not you find the answer to that most fundamental inquiry of existence, your reaction to this ink blot novel may reveal a lot about your character. The book by design, is intrusive, and uncomfortable, challenging our fundamental beliefs. *There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us*...Denfeld gives the monsters the same weight as the angels in her tale. Does this equal weight unbalance our own comfortable notions of good and evil? Do we believe in redemption? Is the death penalty the answer?
Neither the nature of the narrator's crime, nor his name, are revealed until the end of the novel. Again Denfeld's challenge, how much can we trust this all-seeing narrator? Between brutal depictions of the daily life in this prison, and the vulturous staff, we get the inmate's take on a fellow death-row prisoner about to be executed, York; the angel come to save him, The Lady (a mitigation specialist, mandatory for death penalty cases); and glimpses of a fallen priest, and a struggling warden. As The Lady researches York's case she uncovers his wretched childhood -- the worst kinds of abuse against the little boy and his mentally ill mother, sanctioned by a town that turned their heads. York was "an abortion that went undone." What she finds will justify a change of York's sentence; but York wants to carry on with the death penalty. She must also fight her own battles with the intruding memories of a childhood similar to York's. More challenges: Does York have the right to choose death? How does The Lady see both sides of a monstrous killer and an innocent child and find a cause to fight for?
This was the most genre challenging books I have read, and one of the most unsettling. You will see reviews that praise this books as an almost spiritual experience. And no doubt it will reside on the favorite shelf of many readers. You will also read that it was too dark, depressing, filled with despair, for readers. And I believe you will hear the confusion from readers; I felt 5 *'s, 1*, and settled for 3 *'s because of the theme of equal weight. The one unifying detail is Denfeld's writing -- it is outrageously beautiful and breathtaking, and goes against all the usual tenets of writing...like seeing the opalescent sheen of a horrific soul-eating beast's scales reflected in it's fiery breath and saying, "Oh, so beautiful." That contradiction brings me to my trouble with seeing just the redemptive beauty of this book. I felt manipulated. I could not completely reckon myself with equating good and evil, the wounded child and the vile murderer. I didn't see the beauty, until it was suggested. I could not play with balancing weights and judgments. I do not have the wisdom of Solomon, nor the compassion of saints, though I do have a similar background as Denfeld and admire her ability to stay unhardened and charitable.
What will you see? Will you believe in redemption? Will you see golden horses and angels, or monsters with black souls? I will keep coming back to see. This was a brave, beautifully written book regardless of any ratings, and I hope to read more from this magnificent writer in the future.