by Rene Denefeld
Original Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Length: 237 pages
Obtained Via: Borrowed from the library
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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 magical 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, honor 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.
I picked up The Enchanted on a whim because a blog commenter recommended it, and all I knew going into it that was one of the characters was a fallen priest and a large part of it was set in a prison. I’m glad I went in with as little background information as I did, because The Enchanted was mesmerizing. I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant read, because this book is DARK DARK DARK, but it’s a book I’m immensely glad I read.
The narrator of The Enchanted is an unnamed inmate on death row in an old, decaying prison. He does not speak, but he does observe. He observes the fallen priest, a woman who’s job is to handle last-minute appeal for death row inmates, the warden, and York, the woman’s client. Most of the characters remain unnamed for a good portion of the novel(and many are not named at all). The narrator spends his time observing and turning the prison into an enchanted place filled with horses and small men who bury in the walls, reading, and watching the woman working on York’s case.
The Enchanted goes to some dark and despairing places, though it’s also filled with a sense of wonder. It’s enough to create a strange feeling of dissonance at times, as the book explores both the very worst of humanity while also appealing to a sense of hope. I’m not a newbie when it comes to dark books or stories–I grew up on them, and I think I have a pretty strong constitution and what I can handle. That being said, some scenes in The Enchanted are stomach-turning. There’s a great deal of sexual abuse, both mentioned and more graphic(though very little is portrayed on the page, the aftermath of such events are written about in length), murder, a detailed cremation, and general brutality.
That being said, underneath all that brutality is a sense of truth and the complexity of human nature. The Enchanted somehow manages to delve into the stories and intricacies of the death row inmates and how they got there, in many ways humanizing them, without ever letting them off the hook for what they did. It’s a fine line to walk, one I expect was done so well since the author has experience working with such populations. At times the events described in The Enchanted are nothing short of nightmares, and then followed with a passage that so clearly portrays a character just yearning to be known, which is a huge theme of the book.
Other than the unnamed narrator, York is the death row inmate the book spends most of the time focused on. York, unlike so many inmates, is ready to die. He doesn’t want a last-minute appeal. He doesn’t want anything to save him, which is ironically the same characteristics that leads to the lady being hired to his case. The lady visits the places and people of his past, as many as she can find. It’s a brutal journey and harsh journey, and through it there’s so much in the book about death, life, and waiting to die. York may be the death row inmate who’s ready to be sent to a death via lethal injection, but he’s not the only character who’s ready or waiting for something.
I originally gave The Enchanted 4 stars, but as I began writing this review I realized that was more of my reaction of feeling unsettled than the actual merits of the book. A few days later, I can say that while brutal, The Enchanted is a truly excellent book and one I’ll probably remember for a very long time. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stomach reading it again, but I most likely won’t have to as the story has already buried itself deep into my mind.
The Enchanted is highly unsettling and at times disturbing, but also contains a great deal of wonder and awe at life. While I hesitate to recommend it broadly because of some of the more disturbing elements, I definitely do recommend it for readers who can stomach the tough and gritty, because there’s a lot to be found for it in the end. 5/5 cupcakes.