I received this book for free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
Published: 2014 by HarperCollins
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction (General)
Source: TLC Book Tours
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When I picked up The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld, I was expecting it to be a fantasy novel set within a prison. That’s not quite what it is. It’s more like the movie “Dead Man Walking” paired with Isabel Allende’s magical realism.
The Enchanted is narrated by a mute death row inmate named Arden. We never actually know what his crime was, other than the fact that it was so utterly horrendous and unspeakable that it scared everyone, even inside the prison. People don’t pity Arden, and think of him as a monster. Arden spends his days seeking solace in the pages of novels borrowed from the prison library and dreams of what it would be like to see the sun again.
Arden isn’t quite sane. His vivid imagination colors his depiction of the prison, for example, he imagines earthquakes to be a herd of golden horses that dwell below the prison’s lowest level. Despite his eccentricities, Arden is a wise character, and through his eyes we observe interactions between the different people he sees and hears.
First, there’s the Lady, an investigator who helps to gather evidence to grant death row inmates new trials. She’s very good at what she does, largely because she understands where many of the inmates are coming from. As the novel progresses, we gradually discover her broken childhood and realize that she still has emotional wounds that haven’t healed. Then there’s the fallen priest. He felt stifled within the Church, but when working with convicts, he is able to regain his sense of self.
And, of course, there are descriptions of what goes on in the prison itself. Through Arden’s eyes, we see that the violence within the prison is enabled by corrupt guards and officials who see the inmates’ desperation as a way to line their own pockets. By aligning themselves with prominent prison gangs, they contribute to a cycle where less hardened individuals are exploited and abused.
Arden was a fascinating narrator because he is both unreliable and clear sighted. He sees things as they are, only tinged with magic and imagination. His introspection from so much time alone unable to speak or interact gives him an interesting voice, and his words are both thoughtful and profound.
With every exhalation, I find a way out of this enchanted place. My breath rises to the clouds, and some tiny, microscopic particle joins with the clouds and condenses, and when it rains, that tiny part of me is returned to this earth–far away, maybe, in another place like China.
I was impressed by the way that Rene Denfeld was able to humanize the prisoners without making light of their crimes or the damage to the victims. The book doesn’t shy away from acknowledging them as dangerous individuals, but instead simultaneously shows both their monstrosity and their humanity. We empathize with them because they are so often victims themselves, caught up in a cycle of poverty and abuse which damages them and causes to lose sight of who they once were. And at the same time, we don’t view them as something to be saved to ease our collective conscious. We see prisoners on death row who want to die, to escape the darkness of prison life and their own inner demons.
While it’s not the type of book that I could read often, The Enchanted made me think. And yes, it’s horribly depressing. It sheds light on many of the very real problems that are present in American prisons, but is optimistic and hints at the hopeful sense of wonder that the world can still hold, no matter how dark it may seem. Props to the author for presenting that message in such a unique way.