Booked Up

The Ultimate Prison Novel

The Enchanted is a first novel that magically captures the horror and humanity of prisons.

By - Mar 27th, 2014 01:51 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted, the shattering debut novel from Rene Denfeld, is not a book I would normally read. It is an unrelenting fable of degradation and redemption in an unnamed American prison. At times it borders on the horrific. But it is a tribute to Ms. Denfeld’s artistry that I could not put it down. Even now, I can’t stop thinking about it. I suspect its melancholy poetry will haunt me for a long time.

Perhaps you are a braver reader than I. Maybe you have read other brutal dissections of prison life; say Stephen King’s The Green Mile or Deadman Walking by Sister Helen Prejean (who makes an unnamed appearance in this book). None of these will prepare you for the strange world of The Enchanted. It is at times lyrical, at times painful, and always compelling.

Narrated by a mute death-row inmate, The Enchanted is a crash course in the way we imprison the unwanted of society. It gains its grit and veracity from Ms. Denfeld’s real life work as a Death Penalty Investigator. Her insights are startling, in part because we seldom think seriously about what we do when we lock someone up for life or sentence them to execution.

The main characters start out as types: The Warden, The Lady, The Priest. But their eventual revelation as three-dimensional people is a magical act. As she layers on terrifying detail after detail, Ms. Denfeld creates a relentless juggernaut of tragedy and, ultimately, healing. The characters find solace in the prison in which they are trapped and the cages they have created from their damaged lives.

The enchantment of the prison is in the insane narrator’s diseased mind, but it is also in the joy of surviving, even in the most oppressive of circumstances. Life brings small pleasures and victories, even as one awaits his or her death. The magical “golden horses,” “the little men hammering in the walls,” and the “flibbergibbits” are all denizens of the haunted place and the minds of the prisoners. This mystical patina masks the unspeakable horrors committed by and to the incarcerated.

The Enchanted

The Enchanted

The Enchanted succeeds in creating a poem out of despair, but it never lets us forget the terrible things done to human beings who cross the lines that society draws. You will think long and hard about this book the next time you read about an execution. If you are unlucky enough to know someone who is on the prison path, you may feel compelled to try and “scare them straight” with this shocking novel.

In the course of her story, Ms. Denfeld examines such disturbing phenomena as prison heroin trade, guard corruption, and inmate rape. We are forced to face the reasons some people seem destined to be locked up and what happens to them when they get there. A society must be judged on its prisons, the people we put away and what happens to them there. There are no easy answers in this book, but you will never think of these issues as blithely again.

If you love serious fiction that is controversial and thought-provoking, you couldn’t find a better choice than The Enchanted. The fact that it’s a first novel makes Denfeld’s accomplishment even more extraordinary. If you choose to take this journey, it will carry you to places you can’t imagine, some frightening, some beautiful, all quite memorable.

Upcoming area Book Events:

Monday, March 31 (7:00 PM): Riverside Park Urban Ecology Center Event with Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction at The Riverside Park Urban Ecology Center, 1500 E. Park Place in Milwaukee. This event was made possible by co-sponsors Christi and John Clancy and Boswell Book Company. Admission fee is $5 for members and $10 for non-members.

Wednesday, April 2 (7:00 PM): J. Thomas Ganzer, author of Chicago Secrets at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Thursday, April 3 (7:00 PM): Crystal Chan, author of Bird at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, April 4 (3:00 pm to 6:00 PM): UWM Presents a Curtin Hall Event as part of the series “The Arab and American,” with Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman at Curtin Hall on the UWM campus at 3243 North Downer Avenue in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!

0 thoughts on “Booked Up: The Ultimate Prison Novel”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Bill. I’m intrigued by this book. I t doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d usually want to read, but knowing you started out feeling the same- I’ll give it a try!

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s a tough book, Rose, but beautifully written. I think you’ll be rewarded.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I remember reading Astragal (a book by Albertine Sarrazin translated from the French) many years ago, and it too was a world that was not mine, but the writing was fascinating and in-depth, as The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld, seems to be (from reading your review, and it looks like a worthwhile read! so thank you for reviewing it!). There’s also The Edge of the Alphabet (Janet Frame’s poetic book about being misdiagnosed as insane, while she instead had a rare form of epilepsy, and her “adventures” in an asylum), and the classic “The Snake Pit” (which became a great movie with Olivia de Havilland). We need to read about those who have been passed by and have experiences very different than our own (and within them we see all of humanity).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *