Beautiful and brutal - two contrasting words that perfectly describe Rene Denfeld's The Enchanted.
In the depths of an American prison, a nameless man waits on death row. His pleasures in life are the books he gets to read, and his imagination, which turns his prison into an "enchanted place".
Another man, York, awaits his turn to die, having given up on life; an unnamed lady does her best to find information that will save York, while she falls in love with the prison priest. Above them all, the life of the prison continues - tortures and corruption abound.
The Enchanted is an exquisitely written book, at odds with the subject matter within. But it is the beauty of the descriptions, and the fairytale elements of the enchanted place, that make the brutality really, really hurt. Denfeld's protagonist is a man who has done terrible things, so terrible he can't talk about them (or about anything at all). Yet he's also a man who has great poetry in him, the flames fed by his love of reading. And that poetry and those words, his imagination, help him to survive in what is a truly horrifying place. The moments where the prisoner uses his imagination to face real life (particularly when the horses run) are strangely beautiful.
Denfeld pulls no punches with portraying the terrible prison in her book. Characters are treated appallingly, and many times I was so horrified by what I read that I thought I might cry, only I was too stunned to do so. In some ways, The Enchanted's prison scenes were televisual, they reminded me of something like Prison Break, or Oz. But worse.
As well as a horrible setting, the prisoners in Denfeld's book are horrible people. Or are they? They've definitely done horrible, terrible, dark things that landed them in jail, but the ones on death row are, even more than the rest, the products of their truly awful lives, which have been filled with pain and suffering. Nothing can justify their actions or the fact that they caused suffering to others, but Denfeld still managed to evoke my sympathy for many of her characters (apart from Risk and Conroy, who are just horrible).
Three of Denfeld's main characters have no names - there is the anonymous prisoner who tells the story, the investigator who is called only the lady, and the priest, who is referred to by his profession. Yet the anonymity offered to them by the fact that the reader doesn't know their names doesn't at all affect how much we get to know about their characters. By the end of The Enchanted, I felt like I knew all three intimately, because their deepest thoughts, misdeeds and wishes had been revealed within the pages of the book.
The Enchanted is emotionally a brutal, tough read, but it's also an incredibly rewarding one. I often felt like my breath had been taken away as I read it, but it was worth every horrified gasp I let out, every wince that crossed my face, and every tear I couldn't shed.
•The Enchanted is released on March 13.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. This did not affect my review.