Donald Ray Pollock is one of my favorite authors. The other day I noticed he had written a Facebook post which mentioned a new book that he really likes. This reviewer acted immediately, procuring a copy of “The Enchanted” by Rene Denfeld.
Pollock rarely anoints books with blurbs. He wrote one for this: “Rene Denfeld is a genius. In ‘The Enchanted,’ she has imagined one of the grimmest settings in the world — a dank and filthy death row in a corrupt prison — and given us one of the most beautiful, heartrending, and riveting novels I have ever read.”
He’s right, Denfeld’s unique story will carry readers off into a world they never could have imagined. The narrator of “The Enchanted” is a nameless convict on Death Row. He must have committed some horrible crime but we don’t know what he did. He’s mute, nobody at the prison has ever heard him speak. He was formerly allowed to leave his cell to read books in the prison library. Up there he could actually see the sky.
But not any more, something happened. Now he’s locked up 24/7 with no human contact whatsoever. The food trays slide in silently through the slot. Nobody speaks to him. He monitors the sounds emitted by prisoners, guards, and visitors out in the labyrinthine corridor.
He’s aware of that nameless lady who often visits, the death penalty investigator. Attorneys have hired her to try to find ways to obtain stays of execution for their clients. She’s looking into the past of a convicted murderer. He doesn’t appreciate her interest. He wants to die.
There are other nameless characters. The prison chaplain has his own secrets. The lady encounters him one day. He’s standing in the execution chamber. She asks him: “Do you ever think they deserve to die?” His answer: “I’m a Catholic priest,” he says with a startled laugh. “Or I was.”
There’s the warden. He believes in his work. He observes that the lady, the death penalty investigator: “is tougher than any convict, he thinks, harder than the men she frees from the row. She is more dangerous than all the killers combined because she is aware of what she does - and she chooses not to stop.”
“The Enchanted” alternates between the narrator’s viewpoint and the third person perspectives of a few of these other characters like the lady, the priest, and the warden. Our mysterious narrator lives in an enchanted world of his own creation.
He lurks inside his cell listening: “I hear them, the fallen priest and the lady. Their footsteps sound like the soft hush of rain over the stone floors. They have been talking, low and soft, their voices sliding like a river current that stops outside my cell.”
“The Enchanted” is a magical tale that seems intended to make us wonder “what does it mean to be human?” The book closes with a final sequence that is so amazing and ultimately uplifting that it is a wonder to read. You’ll want to savor the ending over and over again.
Rene Denfeld hasn’t quit her day job yet. She’s still a death penalty investigator in Oregon.
This week’s book
“The Enchanted” by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 237 pages, $25.99)