Here is a literary crisis about which no one speaks – a fantastic book written by somebody you might, at least in private fantasy, be happy to draw and quarter. In the (mythically) genteel world of books and writers, this crisis is properly resolved by absolute, dead silence. The wonderful book gets not a syllable of hallowed “word of mouth” promotion from you; your lips are sealed. You pen no review and provide no response whatever if the book or author is mentioned. In this way you preserve the myth of writerly courtesy, but… you also fail the First Cause of the writing life, which is appreciation of good writing. The conflict is thorny, irksome and tiring, but after days of brooding I have come down on the side of good writing. Mostly.
So here’s the story.
Two weeks ago I was in Portland (OR), saw a book review in the local paper and was so drawn to the book that I immediately bought it on my Kindle and sat reading it all that rainy afternoon. I read it again on the plane trip home, savoring the author’s near-poetic elegance and deep understanding of monsters who are human. It is a tale told by a metaphorical prisoner on death row in a metaphorical prison he perceives to be enchanted, giving the book its title. There are also the unnamed Fallen Priest, consigned to pastor this stony hell after a fall from grace, and The Lady, a death penalty investigator whose job it is to unearth the buried, grisly histories of condemned men. (The author is a licensed investigator who specializes in death penalty cases.)
I love this book, regard it as one of the best I’ve read in decades, with personal good reason. I’ve been a child abuse investigator and am painfully familiar with the horrors to which helpless, very young children may be subjected, damaging them for life. I am also no stranger to the realities of prison. For 17 years until his death, I was in weekly contact with a friend, a lifer in Louisiana’s maximum security prison. I can state with authority that this author knows what she’s talking about and, more significantly, transcends both the gritty and the sensational to arrive at a philosophical flashpoint so deep and true as to be worthy of its own school of thought. The book is magical, lyrical and uniquely real. Reading it, I kept nodding, “Yes, yes, yes!” I thought I’d write a long, glowing review even though writers aren’t supposed to write reviews. I do it anyway if a book, especially by a little-known author, is really good.
But there was this problem. The author has written other books, among them non-fiction anti-feminist polemic to which I take profound exception. (Read: I’d like to meet her in an alley somewhere, except she’s younger and a skilled amateur boxer (really) and I’d wind up in a body bag.) It is inconceivable to me that any woman could fail to see the deadly impact of pornography on women and children, but this author attacks Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon for their early and groundbreaking work on porn. Much worse, the author, with an obvious absence of research and scholarship, misrepresents and trashes feminist theorist Mary Daly, revered by women all over the world, who was also my friend. For that, the author is, to me, forever damned and anathema.
Still, last year she wrote a brilliant, beautiful book. Its title is The Enchanted. Her name is Rene Denfield.