Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book Review: "The Enchanted" by Rene Denfeld

This book was not at all what I expected, and it utterly blew me away.

"This is an enchanted place. Others don't see it but I do."

When you think enchanted places, the last thing that comes to mind is an ancient prison, but that is where this beautiful book takes place. It is narrated by a prisoner on death row, where the prisoners are kept in an underground dungeon of sorts. The narrator cannot speak, but he sees and envisions incredible things—golden horses who run hard beneath the prison following every execution, and tiny men that hammer away inside the prison's stone walls, carrying the gossip, threats, and laments from cell to cell.

The narrator isn't upset that his death is imminent. He lives for the moments when the prison trusties bring him books, and he lives for the moments when his other senses come alive in the prison—his ability to hear the magical sounds and smell the scents coming from outside the prison walls.

"I have been inside one locked room or another since I was nine. I am accustomed to it, buried inside rooms that are buried inside other rooms that are buried inside electric razor fences. The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs."

In the midst of the corruption that runs through the prison behind the kindly warden's back (kindly despite his role in walking men to their executions), two people work to change the tenor of the environment—a fallen priest, whose role is to counsel men waiting for death, and a woman, known as the Lady, who is hired as an investigator to try and get some of the prisoners' death sentences overturned. When she begins looking into the case of an inmate who doesn't want her help and wants to die, she uncovers secrets which hit a little too close to home for her.

This is such a compelling story; it's as much about the goings-on inside a prison and the musings of a man condemned to death as it is about the lives of those who work within the system, and how they are able to keep moving forward day to day in the midst of such crushing circumstances. It's also a book about the small things that can bring hope and happiness, even when you're a death row inmate.

I thought this was going to be more fantastical than realistic, and while there are elements of fantasy and imagination, this is a book firmly rooted in the realism of the criminal justice system. And while it's certainly a bit of a downer, Rene Denfeld has created such a memorable cast of characters, and designed such a unique spin on what we've come to expect from books and movies about prisons, this is a book you'll feel in your heart as it engages your mind. Denfeld's storytelling and her use of language were pretty fantastic.

I won't be surprised to see this book on my best-of list for 2016 early next year!!

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