This is an enchanted place. Others don't see it but I do.
I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway. 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, clear 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. I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here – the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow. (p. 4 iPad iBooks e-edition)Some books you remember in terms of "before" and "after," as your reading of them has such a profound change on your world-view that there is a singularly clear demarcation of that shift. For myself, I remember reading Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song in December 1997, just after I finished grad school and was preparing to take coursework to become certified as a grade 7-12 teacher. Mailer's reconstruction of death row inmate Gary Gilmore's life leading up to the execution-style murders that led to his sentence to death and later to Gilmore's abandonment of appeals affected me greatly. Although I already had some unease about the application of capital punishment in the US, reading The Executioner's Song led me to believe that the punishment itself is cruel and unusual.
Therefore, when I read about the subject of Rene Denfeld's debut novel (she's published several non-fiction books and journalistic pieces, many of which concern her experience as an investigator into death penalty cases), The Enchanted, I immediately listed it as a 2014 release that I would buy on release date. At first glance, its more fantastical treatment of death row seemed jarring, but as I read on, the stories being told took on a deeper, more personal touch than what might otherwise had been achieved if it had been written in a strictly realist narrative mode. This, combined with the lives awaiting death being characterized so well, made The Enchanted an absorbing read.
The Enchanted alternates between the first-person PoV of one of the death row inmates and a close third-person PoV of those around the protagonist. The characters largely are described rather than named, such as "the lady" or "the fallen priest." The primary narrator uses several metaphors to contrast the conditions within the prison with those of the world outside, such as this bit, also taken from the opening paragraphs:
The lady hasn't lost it yet – the sound of freedom. When she laughs, you can hear the wind in the trees and the splash of water hitting pavement. You can sense the gentle caress of rain on your face and how laughter sounds in the open air, all the things those of us in this dungeon can never feel. (p. 4)In passages such as this, Denfeld not only establishes sharp contrasts between prison life and those who are free to move in and out of it, but she develops her characters from these poetic comments. Already the reader can sense that the main narrator is acutely aware of the world around him and that he has a love of language and imagery that frequently shines through his narrative. Yet The Enchanted is much, much more than a prisoner's unique take on his environs. Instead of being just an inventive narrative, the somewhat fantastical musings of the narrator (commenting on the "flibber-gibbets" that lurk, waiting to feast on still warm remains from the crematories) serve to create a different set of contrasts, that between the reader's sympathy for him and the later, likely revulsion at what he had done in order to land on death row.
By this point near the novel's end, the beauties the narrator has found within the confines of death row serve to remind readers of the persistence of hope within the bowels of despair, of our desire to find beauty in the midst of such ugliness and depravity. This does not lessen the import of what these prisoners have done, but they do deepen their tales, making them perhaps mostly fully human in that their flaws and crimes, hideous as they may be, a bit more understandable for those of us who may be moved quicker to justice than to mercy or at least empathy. The Enchanted is not the sort of story that is best analyzed for its prose and characterization, although each of these is well-done, but more for its treatment of theme. In this particular case, The Enchanted's look into the dreams of those who are sentenced to death provides a view on the entire enterprise of capital punishment that many of us may not want to think about but which is important to consider nonetheless. One of the better debut novels released so far in 2014.