The Enchanted is about death row inmates and the people who work with them, but more than that, it's a surreal journey through the psyche of a monster. I've seen it described as magical realism and I suppose it is, considering the narrator is a man who hasn't set foot outside his cell in years, yet somehow can follow other characters and report not only on their actions outside, but also their inmost thoughts and desires. If that strains your credulity, as I admit it did mine, this book may not be for you.
However, if you don't think of yourself as a staunch realist, if you're willing to follow an author down unlikely paths where earthquakes are underground horses and tiny men with hammers lurk inside the stone walls of a prison, Rene Denfeld's novel may be the hypnotic trip to the underworld you've been looking for.
In the prison there is a lady, never named, who comes to talk to the condemned men. Her job is to look at their cases with fresh eyes, to see if there is any way they can thwart their sentences and avoid lethal injection. Her current case is different from the others; the inmate, York, wants to die. To do her job, the lady must investigate his case anyway, meeting his relatives and unearthing his past, looking for anything that could save him from a state-issued demise that he says he welcomes. As she plumbs the old, sordid details of York's life, the lady notes with unease how closely they line up with those of her own. They have suffered the same kinds of damage, yet when they meet, he is shackled and jumpsuited in a wooden cage and she is free, seated in a chair and wearing her own battered black boots.
There are others in the prison, among them a fallen priest, himself as haunted as those to whom he ministers. There is a corrupt officer who controls the cell blocks like a mafia boss, using and discarding the young and weak, and a warden too burdened by personal tragedy to see it. There are the others on death row, wasting away after years of appeals, waiting for the day when the blackshirts come for them. And there is our narrator, whose painful childhood and the crimes he committed afterwards are so unspeakable he has been mute since the age of nine.
Despite my occasional impatience with the narrator's magical flights of fancy, I can say that one thing Denfeld does accomplish is to demonstrate the unanswerable ethical question of putting prisoners to death. Some crimes defy understanding, no matter what mitigating circumstances might exist. They remain incomprehensible even to the perpetrators. But what do we do with the knowledge that these people once were children, were scared, hurting, victimized in unimaginable ways? Denfeld provides no answers, but does offer a haunting meditation on pain, loss, and our human capacity for evil.