There are only a handful of novels that have left me blessedly confused in the way The Enchanted did. In each case, the story seems to have evolved so directly from the heart of its author that I have found myself lost at a crossroads, unable to accurately plot the place where the author ends and the book begins, or the book concludes and its author continues. In this most magnificent of ways, Rene Denfeld has me (has the world) mystified.
To hear her talk about the day the book’s narrator first began to speak to her is to watch a magician pull a rabbit from a hat: you know it is not there but then again here it is, being extended to you, the beast’s silken fur warm against your skin, an ephemeral gift. “It was real,” Rene says of her narrator’s voice. “I heard it. I heard him speak to me.” She is so sure of it that you are, too. And the entire book proceeds apace along this magical journey, in prose that shimmers even as it describes filth and crime and pain, a marriage of the most unexpected bedfellows: beauty and destruction.
Which is as it should be. For so too is it for the author herself: a composite of opposites, of the unanticipated. She is a dainty woman, petite and pretty in the way of a songbird, yet there is a ferocity to her gaze that makes you think, She could take me out at the knees. She won’t; but she could, and the knowing changes things. It gives her a power that the delicate infrequently command. To look at her you wouldn’t guess at her past (daughter of a prostitute, homeless by her mid-teens) or present (death row investigator, single mom to three adopted-from-foster-care children), though she endeavors to hide none of that; she lives a life of candor I admire. To make a quick study of her world read Elissa Wald’s interview with Rene, and then read Rene’s Private Lives essay in the New York Times. Finally, read The Enchanted itself, for as I said, to read her book is akin to reading her, to reading about a woman who is strong because not being so was never an option, a woman who is strong despite her hurts, not due to their absence:
“The lady is like me in many ways. Serpents crawl inside her. She is deathly afraid that others will see them. She is afraid, and yet she wants the priest to see inside her and accept the monsters that wrap around the secret, pure part of her—the part she managed to save, miraculously, that so many of us have lost. She knows the monsters are there and yet wants to be seen.
“Her courage frightens and amazes me. It makes me hopeful for her. It makes me crave happiness for her. Is that what you call love? Is that what you call hope?”
But beyond her strength, what shines through The Enchanted most luminously is Rene’s compassion. And by compassion what I mean is her capacity to hold two opposite traits in her mind and heart simultaneously – peace, and evil – and to refuse to deny the presence of one due to the presence of the other. In each of us, she seems to be saying, there is the potential to be a death row inmate. And there is the potential to be his advocate.
Listen to this most essential truth The Enchanted is trying to teach us: Beauty does not evacuate the soul entirely when hatred takes up residence; it can be excavated from the catacombs within any of us; it runs as an invisible horse through the cages in every heart.
Rene Denfeld writes, “What matters in prison is not who you are but what you want to become. This is the place of true imagination.” She may be speaking of and for her characters. She may be speaking of and for herself. Regardless, she did not come by that knowledge easily, and as such she deserves to be believed.
Especially if she is speaking to you.