One of most difficult parts of writing reviews is not succumbing to the use of clichés. But sometimes – sometimes – they’re completely valid and this is one of those times. To save me littering this review with them, I’ll start with a checklist of all those relevant to The Enchanted:
- page turner;
- I couldn’t put it down (not literally, obviously, but I didn’t want to and after I had put it down and slept, I woke up, started thinking about it and picked it up again);
- it stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page (it’s been four days, I’ve read two and a half books and seen four films since then and it’s still bothering me);
- once you get to the end, you’ll want to turn back to the beginning and start reading again;
- perfect for book groups;
- you’ll want to buy copies for your friends so you can discuss it with them (yes, I do, why haven’t you all read it yet?).
The Enchanted is narrated by a prisoner on death row in the USA. We are not told who he is, what crime he’s committed or where he is beyond the descriptions of the prison in which he’s incarcerated.
At the far end of the hall, a narrow set of ancient stairs rises out of the gloom. We are buried here in the dungeon, deep under the cellblocks above. The cells here have never seen sunlight, and the lightbulbs in the stairwells are old and flickering.
The tight dungeonlike stairs are dark corners and spittle-drying places that a wise man avoids. The lady takes a deep breath and plunges up them…The stairs are so old, they slope at the middle. The stone is porous and absorbs blood. It is true, ancient lettings have left pink stains. The stains have soaked into the margins of the old stones, the lady thinks.
‘The lady’ is a death penalty investigator, sent by attorneys to investigate whether a prisoner close to the end of his time can be saved by appeal. In this instance, she’s investigating a prisoner called York, a man who is in the public consciousness after openly stating his desire to die. Our unnamed narrator tells both of these people’s stories along with several other members of the prison community – ‘the fallen priest’ who attends to the prisoners; the prison warden; Conroy, a guard; ‘the white-haired boy’, another of the prisoners; along with snippets of his own story.
All of these characters have things in common – they are the abused, the abuser, or often both. Their treatment and the way they behave towards others is plainly stated; it is often brutal but Denfeld writes about it in order to highlight the moral grey areas: what makes one victim become an abuser while another breaks the cycle? Or do they? Do they swap one type of control for another? Is it kinder to let someone die than let them live with the things they’ve done? This book will give you no answers, choosing instead to leave you with much to contemplate.
The over-riding theme of the novel is freedom:
The lady hasn’t lost it yet – the sound of freedom. When she laughs, you can hear the wind in the trees and the splash of water hitting pavement. You can sense the gentle caress of rain on your face and how laughter sounds in the open air, all the things those of us in this dungeon can never feel.
But, like York, our narrator doesn’t want physical freedom (bar that which comes in the form of death):
The outside is too big and scary for me to think about anymore. The outside is one wild circus where people and ideas clash. 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.
Instead, our narrator finds freedom in books. His desire for them and the comfort he finds in those he re-reads lead the warden to ensure he gets a book most weeks.
The books brought brilliance to my life, and they brought an understanding: Life is a story. Everything that has happened and will happen to me is all part of the story of this enchanted place – all the dreams and visions and understandings that come to me in my dungeon cell. The books helped me see that truth is not in the touch of the stone but in what the stone tells you.
However, these ideas raise more questions: is the lady really free? Is freedom a state of mind rather than a physical condition? Is the story the prisoner tells us ‘real’ or is it his creation?
The last question helps with a difficulty in the narration – if the narrator is imprisoned in his cell, how can he see and hear the things he relates that happen beyond his hearing and vision? This was an aspect that I thought would irritate me as I began the novel but the further I progressed the less important this became. Perhaps this is due to Denfeld’s suggestion that the prisoner’s, or the lady’s, or the warden’s story could be ours. Or that their back-stories are so common, creating them isn’t a real feat for anyone in the system.
The Enchanted has made such an impact on me for two reasons, firstly, the writing is superb, there are moments where the prose is stunning but it also flows so well it’s easy to read; secondly, although the prose is easy to read, the book isn’t, it examines a subject – abuse and control – without manipulating the reader. Who’s ‘bad’ and who’s ‘good’ in these situations? You’ll change your mind several times.
The best way to describe what Denfeld achieves with The Enchanted is in the words of her own narrator:
I loved the ways the precious stories took shape but always had room to be read again. How did they make a story feel so complete and yet so open-ended? It was like painting a picture that changed each time you looked at it.
Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the review copy.