Title: The Enchanted
Author: Rene Denfeld
Rating: 4 / 5
Through a narrator on an ancient prison’s death row, we get to see inside the prison—the pain and the power dynamics, the stories of the inmates there and in their lives before. And beauty, too; although it doesn’t really seem all that present, the writing throughout the novel evokes what one of the characters can only baldly state: “Pain and beauty, and beauty in the pain.”
This book has a lot going for it. I think it’s too easy and simplistic to call it “redemptive,” although it does try for some amount of understanding and, in one character’s case retribution, rather than simply bleakness. Parts of the book are very unpleasant in a way that hit me in the gut, though intentionally and necessarily so. The intensity of the book is something I like about it, and due to the poetic writing, the story does feel “enchanted.” Tension is used to good effect, and the pacing is excellent. It is quite absorbing, so at ~250 pages it feels like a very quick read. In the broadest sense, this is a book about people and their lives, though of course considering the setting one can expect perhaps more misery than is typical. The novel has themes of morality, incarceration, and justice—as well as beauty and magic, and how they intertwine.
Although overall I really liked this book, I have some thoughts that detract from my level of satisfaction with it as well:
– This book does something I’ve seen several other books do and which never fails to irk me: all the waxing on about “oh aren’t books great, they’re little worlds, they become real when you love them, books are magic, books are my sanctuary, reading is so precious, how do authors do it!” It just feels like pandering, like the author is trying to signal that they “get me.”
– Does tertiary syphilis make a person violent? Because after searching for about fifteen minutes, I couldn’t find a thing that would confirm that online, and yet the author made it seem like it was the main “reason” that one of the characters committed what sounded like horrifying multiple rapes (and maybe rapes with torture or murder-rapes or something equally Bad). I’m not here for “o poor man of course he’s going to rape someone, he can’t help it because syphilis” bullshit.
– In a similar vein, Denfeld sort of does the “mentally ill killer” stereotype with the narrator too. And hey, maybe that is her experience of being a death row investigator, and it’s true that many people who commit acts of violence or perpetuate abuse had it done to them too. But it also serves to downplay the agency of murderers and the choice involved in murdering people when the two main cases that are examined in this book almost get a shrug and a “they couldn’t help it.” As I’ve written in my reviews before, mentally ill people are actually more likely to be the victim of violence than an aggressor; most people who commit violence are not mentally ill; and that having certain mental illnesses actually makes it much more likely that a person will be attacked compared to the general population [source]. (To be fair, Denfeld does actually cover at least that last point with one of the more periphery characters in the story.) Denfeld is definitely not only person who uses such tropes–indeed if she were the only example of this, the phenomenon wouldn’t be a phenomenon at all. What she does with the story works really well for her purposes. It’s just that in the process she perpetuates some of those “mentally ill = violent,” and “violent people are broken and can’t help it” ideas. And that is not my favorite thing.
Besides those caveats, though, this book does feel magical—magical and true at once, and I appreciate the questions it raises even if I think I might answer them differently than I suspect the author would.