Rene Denfled is a death-penalty investigator, works with at-risk youth and volunteers at a foster-adoption agency. Her first fiction piece, The Enchanted, is about a death-penalty investigator, saving those without a hope from the very basic premise that “monsters are not born, they are made”. This fascinating and terrible book absolutely wears its heart on its sleeve, the front cover emblazoned with “When you walk on death row, you look for the light”.
Mostly narrated by an unnamed death-row detainee, he sits in a maximum-security prison waiting for death. We don’t know his crime, we don’t know his name, but he watches and listens: to the criminals around him, the warden, the elves in the walls and the horses in the earthquakes, and most importantly to the death-row investigator, the Lady.
The Lady is good at her job, sympathetic, thorough, sensitive, with a brilliant nose for people and the little important facts. She does not judge or question, but delves into pasts to understand where this monster who has been put to death has come from. We meet her on one of her most complex cases: a death-row detainee who wants to die. There has been advocacy, charities, fundraising, to get this final appeal and procure her services, but when she meets him – he in the cage, getting a rare glimpse of sky; she observant, pensive – she is put into an ethical quandary never faced before: do you save the life of a man who wants to die?
Perhaps because of Denfeld’s own experience in her professional life, this book is eerie in its detail, haunting and dark. The functioning of a prison as an institution or industry, what is behind these men who commit crimes which are somehow even more compelling for their lack of detail. It is a pretty horrific world, but also written with some intelligence and a lot of sentimentality:
“‘You come to prison as punishment, not for punishment,’ the guard at the head of the room tells them. ‘Make the most of it.’
But unfortunately the writing is saccharine, overblown; the sympathy overdone; the detail often too extreme believe; the ideas pushing just too far for the reader. I absolutely believe a man on death row dreams of outside, but what I do not believe is that men on death row are kept in 24 hour solitary confinement without daylight or exercise for years and years on end. Our narrator has been years without the sky: am I naïve to think this impossible? I do not think the system is perfect, but a state institution keeping human beings in a damp, dark, underground 3x4m cell endlessly until they are put to death? Feeding them food full of bugs and mould, rejected due to food health standards by other organisations? I try not to pick but the world they are supposed to live in was drawn too extreme, too gruesome to accept. And the world these criminals come from? This is where the Lady really dives in. I found it depressingly acceptable but brutal in its relentlessness in this book: the child abuse, mental health abuse, poverty, child prostitution, rape, abandonment, disease and filth.
Maybe it is believable, maybe it is not, but on the whole this book is exhausting in its horror. I fully accept that there is a lot of pain in this world that I have not known or seen, and I am grateful for that. But taken into this place by a nameless, disconnected narrator, so deep, so quickly actually breaks the fourth wall and makes belief impossible.
There is intelligence and insight here, and no matter how you feel about the violence of this world – ostensibly our world – the book is a compelling read. Mercifully, it is also short; the sentimental language almost a light touch pushing along the plot. I read it in two evenings, was glad when it was done, and despite the suffering did not regret reading it.