There sure are a lot of major releases out this week. Today I'm going to talk about a sleeper title. The author is not coming, but we've had some strong enthusiasm on staff for the book. That said, I'm not going to talk you into buying it. I'm going to talk you out of it. Bear with me. It's Rene Denfeld's The Enchanted.
1. The Enchanted is set on death row, but it’s not an inspirational book about saving lives. Yes, there is a woman trying to save them.
2. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like books where the characters don’t have names, you’ve got another hoop to jump through. The lady trying to save the folks on death row is “the lady,” and there is also “the fallen priest,” “the warden” and “the white-haired boy.” The narrator also appears to be nameless, but eventually he is identified.
3. For those folks who tell me they want to like their characters, let me just say that evil is a relative thing. Can there be people in the book worse than murderers? The answer is yes. They got a Donald Ray Pollock quote. Does that say enough?
4. Do speculative touches drive you crazy? I’m just warning you that The Enchanted has them. Are these touches real or in someone’s head? Maybe. I’d call the book sort of The Lovely Bones meets The Green Mile. There’s no Stephen King or Sebold quote but there’s one from Erin Morgenstern. One of the advance reviews also referenced King. I think he'd like the book, but he doesn't do advance quotes. It will be on his favorite books of 2014, or maybe 2015 if his pile is too high.
5. This book is not just dark and violent, but also a bit grotesque, hence the Kathleen Dunn quote. Imagine a very, very serious Chuck Palahniuk novel that took ten years to write and has a completely different prose style, more poetic than cinematic.
6. Though the Harper folks talked about reading the book over and over or multiple times, I just can’t see how this is possible. It’s not the densest read in the world but it takes some time. You also need to put the book down and exhale. And admittedly at the beginning, it takes a bit of time to get the lay of the land and that can slow a read down. That said, once you have the rhythm, about a third of the way through, it starts moving faster. (Jacket at left is the UK edition).
7. This should talk as many folks into the book as out of it, but I should note that Denfeld wears her ideological heart on her sleeve. Had this been her first novel, it would have likely been a frontrunner for Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize. It's not hard to imagine what she thinks about the dehumanizing conditions in prisons, and the strange dilemma of some folks wanting to incarcerate more people and yet not buy the accompanying costs.While Denfeld has not specifically addressed this in her nonfiction books, which have touched more on gender-specific concerns in The New Victorians and Kill the Body, The Head will Fall, her most recent book, All God's Children, about the street culture of Portland, Oregon, touches on this.
Have I talked you out of the book yet? It’s just that it’s exhausting to listen to customers come into Boswell complaining about a book that they never should have started. Sure it’s a great book, but it might not be right for you, not alone and not in one of those book clubs where everybody just whines and doesn’t try to come to understand what they just read. Make the best of it, folks. Figure out what the author was trying to do. (The UK edition is at right.)
For you folks who want a good, plot-heavy story with likeable characters and a traditional payoff, I've got another ideas. Head to Shotgun Lovesongs, from Nickolas Butler (yesterday's post), or how about my mom's favorite novel in a long time, Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost. It didn’t seem to hit its market in hardcover (or so I can gather from the five-month paperback release), but they’ve gone with a more traditional and less urban Chinese iconic cover for the March 11 release of the softcover. It's really been her favorite book in over a year, and she's gotten a number of friends to read it as well.*
But for you adventurous readers who want a book to go in places that you didn’t expect, who want a story that raises more questions as it answers others, and sees the world in shades of grey, then I think The Enchanted is for you. It also doesn’t hurt that the writing is quite lovely, of course. And if you’re worried about being totally beaten down by the story, Denfeld gives us several emotionally reassuring plot developments though I think you might be surprised that you’re cheering for some of them.
I was reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s Fresh Air conversation with Terry Gross on violence.
"Now, I wasn't trying to do a Schindler's List you-are-there-under-the-barbed-wire-of-Auschwitz. I wanted the film to be more entertaining than that. ... But there's two types of violence in this film: There's the brutal reality that slaves lived under for ... 245 years, and then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence, and that's fun and that's cool, and that's really enjoyable and kind of what you're waiting for."
There’s mostly the first kind of violence in this story, but there’s at least one of the second.
Here's more enthusiasm from current Boswellian Hannah Johnson-Breimeier: “It takes a certain sort of genius to take a heavy and politically fraught topic, give it characters and a setting and then build a story so breathtaking that it will stand out as an immediate classic. Rene Denfeld has done this in The Enchanted. Hers is a story about inmates slated for the death penalty, the prison that houses them, and the investigator who works to save their lives. With writing that is a blend of Cormac McCarthy and Colum McCann, this first novel gives readers an impressive humanity that will be hard to shake.”
From ex-Boswellian Stacie M. Williams: “Denfeld's debut novel (though not her debut book) proves that it's possible to create a mosaic of horror and wonder that fractures the light of our preconceived notions into tiny, bloody pieces. Set mostly on death row, moving outside the prison walls only to give more brushstrokes to the portraits of those living and working in that dank place, The Enchanted features characters both named and nameless who embody the worst and best mankind has to offer. A mute killer with books as his only connection to life outside his cell's shadows, observes (and imagines) the lives of those around him: an excommunicated priest whose past is murky, the female death penalty investigator assigned to a man approaching his final breath who doesn't want the appeal opportunity being offered, a young man freshly jailed who accidentally facilitates backroom dealings... How a novel can be this devastatingly sad and so damn beautiful, I simply cannot say.”
From Publishers Weekly: “This is a stunning first novel from an already accomplished writer that will leave the reader hoping for more fiction in the author's future.” The review seemed star worthy; I’m not sure why it didn’t get one.
From Library Journal: “While dark enough to appeal to fans of fantasy and horror (think Stephen King's The Green Mile), this is also a work of love and redemption. Read this magical book, and prepare to be spellbound.”
The Kirkus Reviews reviewer didn’t like it, finding it over-the-top and filled with too many victims, tossing around the word “melodrama.” For some of you, take this as a warning. For others, it’s a dare.
*I am reminded of the fall of 2008, when I had read all these Paris-set novels. I would tell folks, you're either going to love Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, or Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston, but there's no way you're going to like them both. Every so often, someone would buy both anyway, simply for curiosity's sake, or perhaps to taunt me.
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