Intolerable Cruelty – The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

enchantedThe Enchanted is only the second book I’ve read that fits into a very specific category. That being ‘Books that are so well written everyone should read them, but are so harrowing they’re difficult to recommend’. The other book that I can put in this group is The Road, and most people would agree that’s a pretty fine book. The Enchanted left me similarly wrung out.

Denfeld’s book is set in a real world dystopia, the American penal system. Specifically Death Row. There are several points of view, but the two main ones are from an unnamed murderer, and a woman (known only as The Lady) whose job it is to try to find cause for those waiting on Death Row to have their sentence commuted.

For the first few pages I was unconvinced, or rather convinced I wasn’t going to like it. The idea that death row can be an ‘enchanted place’ is somewhat preposterous. Just because the prose was excessively poetic, I wasn’t going to be convinced. Was I?

Well, yes I was. I’m not sure whether Denfeld’s purple prose settled down, or whether I acclimatised to it, but I found myself transfixed. Each sentence pulled me deeper into this horrible world of violence and murder, forgiveness and retribution. So the prison is indeed enchanting, but not in a Disney castle way, but in the manner of Grimm and ‘bring me back my daughter’s heart’.

This is a brutal novel. Almost none of the characters are untainted by tragedy or violence. Perhaps a little too much so.  There are few chinks of light, to give the reader relief, and its hard to credit that quite so many people have been subjected to that level of horror. Nevertheless this is a novel of immense power.

Behind the glorious prose (and despite my initial misgivings, this is a beautifully written novel, not a word feels out of place), this is a meditation on the futility of the death penalty as it is currently used in the US. It is generally anti death penalty, but above all, it dissects the absurdity of leaving men for years with their executions hanging over them. It is about as destructive a thing you could inflict upon another human being. Some might consider it justified, but Denfeld portrays it as cruel and inhuman. The prison system itself comes under fire. A corrupt system, where a handful of bad people control the fate of countless criminals. It highlights the petty thieves and first offenders that are dragged under by a system stacked against them.

The juxtaposition of the stories of a crazed murderer and a woman who tries to commute killer’s sentences is an interesting one. What is evil? Are we all products of our upbringing, and if so, to what degree should this knowledge be allowed to mitigate our actions? One of the side stories describes a crime to which we have been privy to the build up. It would be a hard-hearted reader who did not think this crime was not justified. Against the backdrop of other killers going to the gallows Denfeld makes an interesting point about the mutability of justice.

The Enchanted is a slender novel, with comparatively few words to a page. It’s a quick read, but it’s impact will linger on long after finishing. This is a beautiful harrowing read, that I hesitate to recommend, but find I have to. It’s one of the finest books you’ll read this year.

Many Thanks to Jessica at W&N for sending me a copy of this book

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