By Rene Denfeld
Harper Collins, 2014
The Enchanted is narrated by a mute man who ended up on death row for a crime he committed while incarcerated. He watches as another man on death row, York, is visited by “the lady,” a mitigation specialist who tries to find a way to decrease York’s sentence from death to life in prison. As she uncovers details about York’s grim childhood, he begs her not to continue her work, as he wants to die; he is finished. The lady (whose name is never revealed) finds solace in the company of the prison priest, who has a checkered past. This is a poetically written book that explores the lives of these central characters, and the prison warden, who exist together in a world where time is running out.
The story is written in a fairy tale style and most of the characters are never given names—just roles: the lady, the warden, the priest. As I read the book, I wondered if this storytelling choice created an unneeded distance from the characters, but as I reflect on and mull the book more, I think Denfeld opted for this style because the topic is so heavy. A realistic book about life on death row might be too much. The fairy tale approach makes this difficult topic more accessible.
Denfeld is a deft writer and clearly knows what it is like to both be on death row and work with people there. For anyone interested in death row, this book provides a unique view of life in prison, a topic not often tackled in literary fiction.
Denfeld lives in Portland with her family. She published a powerful op-ed piece in the New York Times recently about a man who was her father growing up. The Enchanted has been shortlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.
I bought this book at Powell’s in Portland, where I found a signed copy.