The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld's debut novel The Enchanted is set in a US prison. Awaiting execution for an unspecified crime, the narrator is unnamed until the very end of the book. During his many years of isolation and silence - he is apparently mute - he has come to accept both his environment and his likely fate. Years of living in an environment where a rare glimpse of the sky through a raised window in an interview room is something to be clung to as a tiny positive, combined with what appears to be some form of mental illness, has given the narrator a peculiar, magical-realist perspective on the prison: the building, its routines and its inmates and staff.

There's York, a prisoner whose case is currently under review by a Death Row investigator called The Lady; there's the Lady herself, and her efforts to find enough mitigating information on York to have his sentence reduced from death to life without parole. There's a priest who has recently left the Catholic church and is struggling with guilt of his own. There's the Warden, who oversees executions while his wife is dying at home, and Conroy, the corrupt officer. There's also the 'white-haired boy' - a 16-year-old serving two years for car theft, his story fast becomes every bit as harrowing as that of the prisoners on Death Row.

One of many oddities about the narration is that we are told in detail about things to which the narrator couldn't possibly know - not just things that happen in parts of the prison to which he doesn't go, but events outside too: the Lady's visits to York's aunt and doctor, for example, during which she uncovers the horrific details of his childhood. Are we to see the narrator as a fantasist who constructs his own truths and realities in his head - he also tells us of the 'flibber-gibbets' that crawl over the ashes of the dead in the prison crematorium, and of horses that gallop through the prison when an execution takes place - or has he become some sort of omniscient, almost legendary creature himself in the 'enchanted' underground warren of Death Row cells? 

Rene Denfeld is herself a Death Row investigator, and her novel does not shy away from the grim realities of the prisoners' backgrounds, which are almost inevitably deeply impoverished and full of appalling abuse and neglect. None of this is presented as an excuse for a prisoner's crime - the Lady's childhood was also shockingly traumatic, and yet she has clearly taken a very different path from the men whose executions she seeks to stop - but it would be absurd to suggest that it isn't a contributing factor, and it's hard to finish The Enchanted without a nagging sense of guilt that we live in a society in which a child could possibly lead such a life. The prison, too, is simply a microcosm of the outside, where abuses are ignored, corruption is rife and basic human needs - rudimentary nutrition, for example; the prisoners are fed primarily on food that is literally rotting - go unfulfilled.

The Enchanted is a remarkably insightful, astute and powerful depiction of the American penal system and of the strange plight of people who spend decades locked in tiny cells with little or nothing to occupy them but their own, inevitably troubled thoughts. Denfeld's writing is full of poetry and wisdom, and of small but powerful details that build an all-too-clear picture of the novel's setting and subject matter. It's an uncomfortable read, even sickening at times, yet there are also oddly life-affirming moments.