Books & Talks: Death Row Daydreamer

Rene Denfeld’s anticipated debut Novel finds magic in the solitary cell.

“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.”  

So begins Portland writer Rene Denfeld’s debut novel, The Enchanted, which Harper releases this month after winning a six-publisher auction. For the speaker, a death-row prisoner who’s the novel’s narrator, the enchantment is literal. Fantastical beings populate the crumbling, violent penitentiary where he is incarcerated: small men in the walls, creatures called “flibber-gibbets” in the crematorium, golden horses below the ground. But for “the lady,” a nameless private investigator who often visits the prison as part of her job probing death-penalty cases, the “magic” is something more ineffable: a glimmer of humanity and joy in the most unexpected of eyes, and the possibility of redemption in the unlikeliest of places. 

The men on death row “can see the magic just like us,” she tells the prison priest. “I think your God would understand that.”

Certainly, Denfeld does. Like “the lady,” the journalist and author of three nonfiction books works by day as a death-penalty investigator, applying her investigative-reporting skills to uncovering the “why” of unspeakable crimes to save convicts from walking the last mile. Not always, but most of the time, she finds it.  

“I have not had a case that hasn’t been marked with extreme poverty, abuse, or neglect,” says Denfeld, an expert in fetal-alcohol disorders, cognitive impairments, and drug effects. “Our culture is enamored with the mythology of the brilliant sociopath, the Hannibal Lecters, but in my experience, that’s really rare.”  

Rene Denfeld
Powell’s City of Books
Mar 5  

The petite 46-year-old is no stranger to adverse circumstances. Following a “very difficult” North Portland upbringing in a biracial family marked by mental illness and suicide, she dropped out and left home at age 15. It was “a blessing, in a way,” she reflects. “Whether in my writing, or in my work with men on death row, or with my kids”—Denfeld has adopted three children from foster care—“I think my background has made me comfortable dealing with traumatic histories.” 

It has also granted her the ability to see the light in the darkness. In The Enchanted, Denfeld tells the somber story of York, who has waived his right to appeal his death sentence, and “the lady,” who has been hired by anti-death-penalty activists to find mitigating factors in his case. Summoning comparisons with the work of Katherine Dunn and Ken Kesey, the novel has already started to rack up glowing reviews. (Dunn herself called it “a jubilant celebration that explores human darkness with a profound lyric tenderness.”) 

“We talk so much about the terrible things people do to each other, but sometimes we don’t talk about the beauty that can occur even in those circumstances,” Denfeld says. The Enchanted is an unflinching look at men who’ve done repulsive things, a magical-realist tale, and an argument for the existence of the soul—all at once, and without contradiction.

Spring Releases from Local Authors

Justin Hocking, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld
In his refereshing memoir, this local indie publishing darling struggles to relocate from Colorado to New York City and finally finds solace in surfing. Feb 25 release; Feb 26 at Powell’s 

Ariel Gore, The End of Eve
Having made a name for herself writing about motherhood (see Hip Mama), Gore explores the other side in her poignant memoir about moving to Santa Fe to care for her difficult, cancer-afflicted mother. Mar 1 release; Mar 3 at Powell’s

Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
Spanbauer follows three artists and the complicated love between them in a novel that spans 25 years and the US continent. Cheryl Strayed calls it a “beautiful masterpiece.” Apr 1 release; Apr 1 at Powell’s

Brian Doyle, The Plover
The seven-time Oregon Book Award–finalist writer’s sophomore novel spins a fantastically zany yarn about an Oregon captain who sails into the sunset alone, only to find camaraderie in the unlikeliest of places. Apr 8 release; Apr 8 at Powell's