This blog was originally published on Readers Unbound, May 6, 2015
I like mysteries and I like fiction that explores controversial subjects. So the BBC Outlook interview with Rene Denfeld immediately captured my attention. Denfeld’s first fictional work is a mystery set ondeath row with the surprising title The Enchanted.
The Enchanted tells the story of three very broken main characters. “The lady” is a death penalty investigator employed to find evidence that might save prisoners from execution. In this case, she explores the life of an inmate named York. She is there not to diminish the horror of her clients’ crimes, but “to hear their truth, whatever it is, and to honor their truth.” Having survived a childhood of abuse herself, the lady is uniquely qualified to do this.
But York wants to die, and the lady understands why.
“I understand why you want to die,” she tells York.
“Most people say that,” he says.
“I’m not talking about living on death row,” she says. “I meant I would want to die if I were you.”
He stares at her…”Because of what I did?”
The anger in his eyes passes and is replaced with sadness…” I’ll ask you please.”
“Walk on out of here and let me die.”
The third character is a kind of narrator, an observer. He is also on death row, is nameless until the final pages, and mute to all but the reader. His words open this intriguing book and give us its title:
“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do. …The most wonderful enchanted things happen here…. I want to tell you while I still have time, before the close the black curtain and I take my final bow.”
An avid reader since childhood, he knows how to escape into magical worlds, and has turned the antiquated prison with all its violence, abuse and corruption into an enchanted place. He hears “golden horses” with manes “like tongues of fire” running beneath his cell, little men with hammers in the walls and “flibber-gibbets” that dance. He pictures his breath rising and becoming one with clouds until it descends somewhere else on the planet. He gathers rain seeping into his cell with childlike delight.
There are many “monsters” in the prison. Some are persons: the corrupt guard, prisoners who abuse the weak, and the man whose crimes even murderers don’t mention because “some things are too awful to contemplate.” And there are monsters within. The narrator explains what happened when abuse made his body no longer his own:
“…your soul has no place to go, so it finds the next window to escape.
“My soul left me when I was six. It few away past a flapping curtain…It left me alone in the choking dark…When you don’t have a soul, the ideas inside you become terrible things. They grow unchecked, like malignant monsters. You cry in the night because you know the ideas are wrong…and yet none of it does any good. The ideas are free to grow. There is no soul inside you to stop them.”
The Enchanted searches the stories of broken people to lay bare what may drive human beings to commit terrible crimes, or to transcend their circumstances. The author probes human experience to find the boundary of redemptive possibility. Denfeld’s thesis seems to be that for some it is simply too late to change the course of their lives, while others are able to turn their tragedies into gifts. Not until the end do we know whose lives are transformed and in what ways.
Beautifully written, The Enchanted is also deeply disturbing. One expects to be disturbed by the horror of crimes, the violence of prisons, the tragedy of childhoods. Denfeld depicts these without minimization or sensationalism. One does not expect to be so disturbed by the beauty found in the midst of monsters.
This beauty becomes almost disorienting. Denfeld’s writing style, with its poetic cadences and imagery, adds to the atmosphere of mysterious ambiguity which characterizes the book. Several characters have no names – the lady, the narrator, and minor characters like the “fallen priest.” I do not know whether the golden horses and flibber-gibbets reflect imagination or psychosis or perhaps something real. At times it was not clear to me whether I was hearing York or the narrator. The characters are full of contradictions and surprises and often reminiscent of the theater of my dreams. Denfeld’s style captivated me with its otherworldly quality.
Such qualities might cause the reader to dismiss The Enchanted as fantasy, interesting but not challenging, if the author herself were less credible. But Rene Denfeld is qualified both professionally and personally. She is a death row investigator. She is a wounded person and several of her characters are strongly reminiscent of her own story. Like both the lady and York, she was raised by a mother with mental disabilities who loved but could not nurture her, and who brought violent men into her life. Like the narrator she found refuge and magic in books, refers to the local library as the place she ran to after school, where she could be safe and escape to magical worlds. The narrator has read every book in the prison library and in a way “authors” his own books as well, as he turns his surroundings into lands of enchantment.
Because the characters and the world of The Enchanted are so surprising and because the questions posed are so challenging, I find Denfeld’s credibility essential. I cannot dismiss the work as “fanciful imaginings.” It will remain with me for a long time and the questions posed will probably change me. I would like to ask Denfeld how often she encountered beauty, poetry, depth among death row inmates. Are York and the narrator the rarest of exceptions? Or are we to utterly alter our images of those whose crimes are monstrous?
I highly recommend Denfeld’s brilliant book. It challenges me to relish every patch of sky, drop of rain, smell of spring with something approaching the delight, the rhapsody in fact of the narrator of The Enchanted. Is it possible that all the freedom, possibilities, sensory experiences and tragedies of my world actually scatter my attention and obscure the “enchanted”? Or if an inmate on death row can find incredible beauty in his world, can I learn to see my own as “enchanted”?
What helps or hinders seeing the enchanted in our world?