I finished this book two days ago and am still trying to figure out how author Rene Denfeld pulled this off. It's a story of people on death row, couched in terms of fairy tales and enchantment. At first thought, that seems so unbelievable, but when you stop and think about the real Grimm's fairy tales, or the work of someone like Angela Carter, you start to see how Denfeld approached the story. And made it work, far beyond what I would have imagined anyone could.
The Enchanted is told mostly by an unnamed (until the end) narrator on death row, who doesn't speak, but in his head tells us the story of the inhabitants of this surreal world. There's York, whose execution is coming soon, and who wants to die. There's the unnamed lady who's been hired by lawyers to find a way to save York from execution, even if he doesn't want her to. There's the unnamed priest, fallen, who tries to minister to these souls. There's the young blong boy, in for just two years, who finds his ideas about prison to be horrifyingly naive. And there's the narrator, who hears the rumbling of golden horses and sees mysterious creatures in the dust of his cell. As they all center in on York and his appeal, their lives cross and touch in different, sometimes minute ways.
At first I was put off by the tone of the book, which is at times dreamy and mystical. But the more I read, the more I was hooked. Denfeld doesn't pretty up the prison--give this book to anyone who thinks prison is not a bad way to end up. They may change their mind. Denfeld herself has worked as an investigator in death row cases, so I'm going to believe her details here are as accurate as they are horrifying. And she raises lots of questions about nature vs nurture and why some people end up on death row when others end up surviving awful childhoods and becoming thoughtful adults instead of murderers, all without judging the latter.
Denfeld's writing is beautiful and spot-on for the characters and stories:
"Later I read that there are things inside us too tiny to see. Not even a microscope can capture them. This got me thinking--if there are things inside us too tiny to see, might there be things outside us too big to believe?"
Other times the writing is gruesome, in a straightforward way, like a horror story. Writing about the executed prisoners being cremated:
"No one likes to be by the oven when the men burn, not even the female guards, who seem the toughest and most able to take death. The burning bodies make hissing and popping sounds. When the heads explode from the trapped steam, they make a particularly gruesome sound, like giant bugs being thwapped."
One little mystery: the narrator frequently mentions a book he's read called The White Dawn, and it's clear it's a hugely meaningful book to him, although he doesn't give us any details about it. A little search and I found this: The White Dawn by James Houston, originally published in 1971, a novel about three white men in an Eskimo village. I haven't read it, but now I want to, to see if it ties to this book.