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Wednesday 30 September 2015

‘The Enchanted’ by Rene Denfeld

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
2 March 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-7802-2634-7 (PB)

One of the best things about crime fiction is that it’s a very broad category. Self-styled literature experts sometimes dismiss it as commercial and second-rate, but that’s only because their experience of it is very narrow. And sometimes, a novel comes along which is indisputably about crime, but breaks the boundaries and reinvents the definition.

The Enchanted is one of those novels. In many ways it follows a conventional path. It’s set in a maximum-security prison; the main narrator is a prisoner on Death Row; it tracks the progress of an investigation; there’s more than one murder. The ending is right, and satisfying; cosmic justice is served in more than one case; both good and bad characters get what they deserve.

Yet it resembles no other crime novel I’ve ever read. It brings the grim prison to appalling, often stomach-turning life using language and images that are always rich and often poetic. The prisoner-narrator’s  observations, interpretations and descriptions of what goes on around him are imaginative and elegant, although he himself is shrunken, withdrawn and on his own admission an inadequate excuse for a human being.

The other main character – I hesitate to use the word protagonist, since it implies an element of power, and she would be the first to deny that she has any – is an investigator whose job is to find reasons for the reprieve of Death Row prisoners. In this case she is dealing with a man who only wants to die, and has no desire whatever to accept her services. Working through the dilemma this presents has a profound effect on her, and this imbues the narrative with a sense of hope and leads to an uplifting ending despite the inevitable sense of tragedy which surrounds Death Row.

The novel’s chief strength lies in its almost tactile evocation of settings and exquisite use of language, but Rene Denfeld also has a keen eye for characters, and several stand out: the lady herself, the damaged former priest who works with the prisoners, the sensitive prison warden who is living through his own tragedy, the prisoner whose case is under review, the narrator-prisoner’s disabled aunt are only a few. Other stories are threaded delicately through the main narrative, including a young boy singled out for special attention by powerful prisoners, and the machinations of the corrupt chief guard.

It’s one of those books which shouldn’t work but somehow does, gripping and enthralling from the outset. The author is herself an investigator of the kind she portrays, and has used her first-hand knowledge and deeply felt impressions to excellent effect.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Rene Denfeld is an author, journalist, and death penalty investigator. Her debut novel, The Enchanted was recently published to much acclaim, including a nomination for the esteemed Flaherty-Dunnan fiction prize. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Oregonian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her nonfiction books include the international bestseller The New Victorians, Kill The Body, The Head Will Fall; and All God's Children. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her three children, all adopted from foster care. She loves parenting, gardening and volunteering with at-risk children.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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