Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Enchanted (Rene Denfeld)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.

The Enchanted exists in the periphery of my mind, and for that matter on the periphery of reality. It's set inside an old prison, filled with some of the most despicable inmates imaginable, men who have tortured and destroyed other people. Our narrator is nameless, an inmate himself, but he is somehow omniscient to the goings-on both inside and outside the prison (don't question it).

He paints a very bleak picture of a wasteland of a facility, flooded with heroin trafficking and sexual abuse perpetrated by particularly wicked fellow convicts and a corrupt worker looking to move up in the prison hierarchy. The main plot of the novel is that one of the inmates has decided he wants to die rather than fight his place on death row. The prison brings in a woman known only as "the lady", a woman who has the job of finding ways to get men off of death row and into "life in prison," and a lot of the action chronicles her rooting into the convict's past to find substantial evidence to prevent his execution.

Denfeld's fiction debut is a curious one. I was lured into reading it because the description promised beautiful, poetic prose and main character who is drawn into the world that exist in his books to escape his prison. The narrator talks about his love of books at the beginning of the story but it isn't central or even frequently discussed. This struck me as a disappointment, because that synopsis sounds more promising than the actual book was.

There is lovely writing in spades, worry not, and that's one of the book's strengths. In fact, the book is heavy on a gorgeous turns of phrase and satisfying (if despair-inducing) ruminations on life and living. I normally dislike books whose entire run is bloated by philosophical meanderings of narrators, but something about The Enchanted just feels right. It's not too heavy-handed, and the thoughts the narrator has are interesting, but I imagine that has a lot to do with my minimal exposure to prisoners--it's a perspective I don't think about very much.

The plot, to some extent, is a little...much. The narrative takes a turn for the intentionally depressing, featuring backstories for characters including sexual abuse, neglectful parents, and a fallen priest. The sadness really piles itself on, and it's not always engaging, and that's the very real danger of writing a book like this one. There's a point at which filling a book with woe stops being artistically sad and begins to feel a little demanding. "Aha! Now you must feel sad!" says the book, smile wide as it realizes it has presented me with something horrifying, grotesque, and soul-shattering. I generally respond "No thanks" and feel sad that the book would do such a thing when we were on such good terms.

Certainly the priest's story was the good kind of sad, but it's kept a secret until the very end. The backstory reveal on this character (who feels curiously absent from most of the book) is the moment at which Denfeld manages to really solidly assemble a collection of feelings and slowly feed them to the reader in tiny portions. Here's a little teaspoon of love, and another, and one more, followed by a tablespoon of fear and a mug of sadness to wash it all down.

Come for the lovely writing, tough it out through the overwhelming sadness if you can. It's a good book.

My rating: 4/5
The Enchanted on Goodreads
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