A novel set primarily on death row, narrated by a prisoner who has no clear role in the actual story, about the prisoner in the cell next to him and an investigation that may result in a last minute reprieve from his sentence, in which only a handful of characters are assigned names, and a large magic realist thread is drawn through the book; it really does sound like a recipe for failure. What makes The Enchanted such a good book is not just in its strange, dreamlike atmosphere, but in its humanising of those imprisoned and facing death.
Rene Denfeld’s debut novel is narrated by a mute, unnamed prisoner who sits on death row after committing a crime, the details of which are kept out of reach of the reader, but which are hinted at. The narrator tells the story of York, a prisoner in the cell next to him, who is expected to be executed in just a few short weeks, and the efforts of The Lady, assigned to his case to investigate whether he is innocent of the crime he has committed. York is, unlike most on death row, resigned to death and at times, states that he wants to die. There are other plots too, within and around the prison, but it’s York’s story which drives the narrative forward.
What Denfeld achieves with the novel is a fascinating insight into the prison system, and a strong critique of the death penalty. Don’t think though that this is an autobiographical tale though. Whilst the author’s real life experience as a death row investigator gives this novel an angry edge over others, and gives us the ins and outs of both prison staff and prisoners experiences on death row; this novel is much more interesting as an exploration of characters, and their attempts (both prison staff and prisoners) to be human. That, in effect is the crux of the novel. That the characters are labelled so broadly, ‘The Lady’ ‘The Priest’, indicating the singular nature of their roles in the prison society (as viewed through the lens of our prison bound narrator). Neither character is all that original, we have all seen or read stories with priests who have lost their faith before. That Denfeld manages to take such archetypes, and give them depth, is a testament to her writing here.
Magic realism, done wrong, can be incredibly grating. Denfeld does sometimes veer off into more lyrical territory which can sometimes threaten to derail the narrative. Her imagery can be a bit on the nose at times – especially the young, white haired boy, (sent to the prison early in the novel, and corrupted as the narrative plays out) which is so Lord of the Flies he might as well have just been called Simon; but for the most part this can be forgiven. Likewise, her magical realist tone to the novel can sometimes frustrate (and, in a particular passage about some creatures she refers to as ‘flibber gibbets’ it’s downright embarrassing), but actually for the most part, it’s done with nuance and care, and manages to tread that fine line between beautiful and twee. The opening of the novel is typical of Denfeld’s ability to use magical realist tropes to bring the narrative to live, rather than busy it up with pointless imagery:
“I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clean air. I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden’s finger to press the red buttons. I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky.”
There are moments in this novel of absolute beauty, and some great writing to boot. Denfeld has managed to create a very, very human book about a very inhuman place; and has managed to write a prison novel which feels completely unlike any prison we have ever read.
Any cop? Yes, definitely. A unique and fascinating debut which, despite its flaws, will remain in your mind for weeks after you have finished it.