Enchanted (Denfeld)

The Enchanted
Rene Denfeld, 2014
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062285508

The lady, an investigator who excels at uncovering information to save her clients from execution . . . The fallen priest, beaten down by his guilt over a terrible sin and its tragic consequences . . . The warden, a kind man within a cruel system . . . The mute prisoner, sensing what others cannot in what he calls "this enchanted place. . .

The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison. Two outsiders walk here: a woman known only as the lady, and a fallen priest. The lady comes to the prison when she has a job to do. She's skilled at finding the secrets that get men off death row. This gift threatens her career—and complicates her life—when she takes on the case of York, a killer whose date of execution looms. York is different from the lady's former clients: he wants to die. Going against the condemned man's wishes, the lady begins her work. What she uncovers about York's birth and upbringing rings chillingly familiar. In York's shocking and shameful childhood, the lady sees the shadows of her own.

The lady is watched by a death row inmate who finds escape in the books he reads from the prison library and by reimagining the world he inhabits—a world of majestic golden horses that stampede underground and of tiny men who hammer away inside stone walls. He is not named, nor do we know his crime. But he listens. He listens to York's story. He sees the lady fall in love with the priest and wonders how such warmth is possible in these crumbling corridors. As tensions in "this enchanted place" build, he sees the corruption and the danger. And he waits as the hour of his own destiny approaches.

The Enchanted is a magical novel about redemption, the poetry that can exist within the unfathomable, and the human capacity to transcend and survive even the most nightmarish reality. Beautiful and unexpected, this is a memorable story. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Rene has written for many esteemed publications including the New York Times Magazine,  Oregonian, and Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a published author of three books including the international bestseller The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Kill The Body, The Head Will Fall, and All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families. Her first novel, The Enchanted, was published in 2014.

In addition to her writing career, Rene Denfeld is a licensed investigator who specializes in death penalty work. She is known for her diligent, informed and in-depth investigations. Rene has extensive training and experience in subjects including FASD, drug effects and cognitive impairments. She is the happy mother of three children she adopted from state foster care. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
The Enchanted explores the complexities of many crucial issues, including how we treat our children and the vulnerable and the consequences of our actions. It also makes us ask whether our personal behavior, social policies, and the justice system perpetuate more pain than otherwise for humanity.
New York Journal of Books

If you enjoy mystery and suspense as well as a bit of magic and horror you will find it all here. The story is enthralling and keeps you reading far into the night.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Enchanted is instead a testament to the power of words, of language and symbols to reshape one’s reality, and it is an extraordinarily empathetic look at the sorrows and joys of even the worst aspects of human life.

The fiction debut from nonfiction author and journalist Denfeld (Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall) is a striking one-of-a-kind prison novel. The narrator, who is on death row and remains nameless until the book’s end, explains that the prison, although a place where “the walls sigh with sadness,” is enchanted: golden horses “run deep under the earth,” miniature men with miniature hammers hide in the walls, and “flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.” The narrator’s magical perspective—which is paradoxically necessary, perhaps, to preserve what remains of his sanity—contrasts heartbreakingly with the parallel tale of an investigator, also unnamed, who is tasked with finding details about the past of another death-row inmate, known as York, that will result in his sentence being commuted, even though York has decided he wants to die. The novel follows the investigator’s exploration of the inmate’s grim life, even as the narrator brings us inside the dank stone walls of the “dungeon” where he lives. Through the novel’s rich, haunting prose, Denfeld, who herself has worked as an investigator in death penalty cases, shines a light on lives led with capital punishment on the schedule. This is a stunning first novel from an already accomplished writer that will leave the reader hoping for more fiction in the author’s future.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Filled with themes of pain and suffering and still a pleasure to read, this impressive debut from author/journalist Denfeld (All God's Children) is set in a decaying, dark, corrupt prison, but as the opening line reveals, it "is an enchanted place." The Lady, a death-row investigator (similar to mitigation specialist Denfeld) uses her unique perspective as a victim of terrible childhood abuse and conditions to research the lives of inmates. Working with her are a fallen priest, who is hiding secrets and hurt of his own, and the warden, whose wife is dying of cancer. Much of the story is told from the fantastical perspective of a reclusive prisoner on death row, preferring to remain unseen for his own protection and those around him. In many ways, this is a tale about being seen, understood, possibly forgiven, and maybe even loved. VERDICT While dark enough to appeal to fans of fantasy and horror (think Stephen King's The Green Mile), this is also a work of love and redemption. Read this magical book, and prepare to be spellbound. —Shaunna E. Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Library Journal

Evocative.... Denfeld’s humanizing of the potential for horror that is within all of us and her insistence that the reader see the beauty in the darkest corners of life sizzles through her sharp prose, which both makes us flinch and invites us to imagine.

The lost souls are on both sides of the bars in this death-row melodrama, the first novel from the author of works on societal issues (All God's Children, 2007, etc.). The prison is old. The row itself is below ground. The nameless narrator calls the place enchanted, for the inmates are under the spell of death. Executions in the lethal injection chamber are frequent. Mute since the age of 6, this narrator left a mental hospital at 18 and did something "too terrible to name" to a little boy. He found sanctuary in the prison library until, intolerably provoked, he beat another inmate to death and was transferred to solitary. There are too many gaps in the mute's story to make him compelling. We know much more about his neighbor York, convicted of crimes against girls, again unspecified. His beautiful, mentally challenged mother had slept with half their small town; her visitors took advantage of York, too. He was born with syphilis. This detail is uncovered by the lady, as the death penalty investigator is known. (The author has worked in this field.) Acting for the defense to commute York's sentence to life, she is up against a tight deadline and against York himself, who wants to die. Her sleuthing could have made a powerful novella, but there are too many distractions. We delve into the lady's background, a mirror image of York's. She's painfully alone but looking for a mate, and she finds one in another death-row visitor, the fallen priest, a loner burdened by guilt. But Denfeld's not done; she explores the prison culture, in which corruption is rampant and rape condoned. She is on much surer ground here than with her magic realist touches, such as the golden horses that live beneath the row and start running as an execution nears. Their role? "[B]eauty in the pain," says the priest. An over-the-top work with a number of preordained victims but no individuals
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The novel opens with the line, "This is an enchanted place. Others don't see it but I do." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word "enchant" as, "to attract and hold the attention of (someone) by being interesting, pretty, etc.; to put a magic spell on (someone or something)." Why does the narrator call this place enchanted? What beauty does he find in his surroundings that others do not? What does this tell us about the narrator?

2. Talk about the main characters: the narrator, the lady, the priest, and York, the prisoner on death row at the center of the story. How are these characters' lives and their fates intrinsically connected? What do we learn about the lady and the priest from the narrator?

3. Why does York want to die and why does the lady want to save him? Is he worth saving? How does she go about gathering evidence to understand his case, knowledge that might prevent his execution? What propels her choice at the novel's end?

4. Think about York. What were your first impressions about him when he's introduced? As you discovered more about his story, did your outlook towards him change? How does the experience of investigating York's past affect the lady and her outlook towards York? How does it shape how she sees her own life?

5. What draws the lady and the priest to one another? Why do you think each chose the career they pursued? How do their callings sustain them emotionally? Are they good at what they do—even if the priest is himself fallen from grace?

6. What has being locked inside done to the narrator—and for him? What about some of the other prisoners he watches? Do you believe in rehabilitation? Do you think our prison system today encourages rehabilitation? Is there something else we can do besides imprison those who commit crimes?

7. One of the Ten Commandments is "thou shalt not kill." Isn't executing someone—even someone who committed a heinous crime such as taking another's life—going against morality? Why is the death penalty still used in the United States compared to most other modern democracies?

8. Do you believe that we are products of our circumstances? How much can free will mitigate terrible damage that inflicted in a person's youth, when he or she is most vulnerable and impressionable? Why do people do such terrible things to each other and to innocent children? "There is too much pain in the world, that's the problem," the lady tells the priest. What causes so much of the world's pain and can we, both individually and as a society, do to help alleviate this suffering? How much responsibility do we carry for our fellow men and women?

9. What do you think is the worst punishment that the prisoners in the novel face being locked away? "It is meaning that drives most people forward into time and it is meaning that reminds them of the past, so they know where they are in the universe. But what about men like me? For us time doesn't exist." Think about time in your life and in the narrator's. How do you respond to him? What can give a life that is not measured by the events of time real meaning? How is such a life measured? Think about not being able to touch someone or see the sky. How would that affect you for a day? A week? A year? A lifetime?

10. What happens to people when they are incarcerated? How can we make the prison system more humane? Should it be humane or do convicts, regardless of the level of their crimes, "deserve what they get"? As a society, do we see prison more as punishment or as retribution? How can we save people from having failed lives? Is it possible to save someone?

11. Do you think that death offers release for men like York and the narrator? Did they find peace?

12. Like the lady, Rene Denfeld is a fact investigator in death penalty cases. How do you think her work shaped the story? Did reading The Enchanted alter your view of prison?

13. Rene Denfeld touches on many issues and themes: Mental illness, justice, time, kindness, remorse, forgiveness, the need for love and connection, life and death itself. Choose one or two and trace them through the novel, using examples from the novel to enrich your analysis.

14. Why did you choose to read this novel? Did the novel surprise you in any way? Explain why or why not. What did you take away from reading The Enchanted?
(Questions published by the publisher.)

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