Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Author: Rene Denfeld 
Title: The Enchanted
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Harper
Length: 261 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing premise, easily accessible through Overdrive
Read If You’re: Looking for something literary but different; interested in death row or the prison system
Quote: “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.” (1)
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
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Coming in under 270 pages, The Enchanted is a short read, telling a story easy to blaze through but not easy to digest. Consequently, I’m also finding it difficult to write about even though I have lots of thoughts and feelings on the book. Please bear with me.

When I first encountered the online marketing campaign, I thought The Enchanted was going to be a great new innovative fantasy. I was very surprised and a little bit confused about how wrong that impression was. Even after reading the description, I thought, “So… this is a prison in a fantasy world?” I cannot recall what prompted me to add it to the TBR pile once the fantasy illusion was broken. Some readers label this book as magical realism, but I don’t think it contains any magical elements. The ‘magical’ elements are just a part of that character’s viewpoint. It’s not actually a magical world. I would categorize this book as nitty gritty realism, presented from an enchanted perspective.

The narrator’s voice and the style of prose (they are the same thing in this story, perhaps) also create the magical feel, in the following manner: I could barely accept some of the things that happen in the story. I felt like they couldn’t really happen in my world. The people in the story live such different lives, they must be some far distance away in a magical land where all the rules are different (which is indeed one way to look at the prison system). They create their own rules, their own methods of survival, their own magic. The prose contributes to that mystical, distant feeling. The words are simultaneously heavy and light, beautiful yet horrific. It’s like the words of the story open a small door at the end of a long dark tunnel to allow you to peak into this world. The feeling I had while reading this book is proving very difficult to describe. It doesn’t feel like a story grounded in our world. It feels like a story floating away behind a distant fog. I felt distanced from the story, but only in the manner that I didn’t feel like it was in my world. The Enchanted is a brutally realistic story presented in stunning wrapping.

A large focus of this book is the failings of the prison system, the awful things that happen inside, enabled by a vast network of corruption. The story also explores the tragic events that can lead a person to commit terrible acts. The Enchanted could be a difficult read for many people. I appreciated the book’s length once I finished reading. If the story was much longer, it may have become too overwhelming. (The book’s shortness was another thing that surprised me. I’d not seen a physical copy, so I had no idea how long it was. I was anticipating something heftier.) I anticipated prisoners being portrayed too sypathetically (ex. only focusing on the terrible conditions in the prison and not on their terrible deeds), but actually I think the issue (whether criminals deserve prison, as it is now) is well balanced. Denfeld demonstrates how broken a prison system can be – how much more damage than healing it inflicts – while also conveying that many people caught inside are dangerous people who have done terrible things (even if they’re only that way because they had a terrible childhood). Of course, the story promotes prevention as the best solution (obviously, herpderp) and of course, it’s not so cut and dry to say all prisoners deserve some punishment. The young boy character in particular illustrates some of the massive failings of the prison system. Anyway, I don’t really want to get into social commentary here, but The Enchanted definitely provides a good starting point for an important discussion.

From the book’s description, you might think the lady and the priest have equal page time. But, the lady is definitely the primary character while the priest is secondary. I’m not sure the priest really contributed a lot to the story. I would have either liked to see him as an equal role with the prisoners (i.e., a lesser role, one of many stories)  or a fuller role equal to the lady’s. I really appreciated the warden. Too often such authority figures are portrayed as bad guys. As mentioned above, the narrator has a strong voice. Reading the ‘side stories’ about the interplay between guards and inmates, and inmates and inmates, was the most difficult, as Denfeld certainly knows how to make them feel like real people. I think if it weren’t for the ‘magical’ prose this story would be too close to real crime fiction for reading comfort.

The Bottom Line: I find books difficult to write about tend to be books difficult to read. Oh boy, is The Enchanted a tough exploration of prison and death row, but it’s a well-written and balanced one. A unique read certainly worth a go if you’re up for it.

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