Reading

Completed: All the Crooked Saints

The first miracle was this: making the darkness visible.

Sadness is a little like darkness. They both begin in the same way. A tiny, thin pool of uneasiness settles in the bottom of the gut. Sadness simmers fast and boils hard and then billows up and out, filling first the stomach, then heart, then lungs, then legs, then arms, then up into the throat, then pressing against eardrums, then swelling against skull and eventually spilling out of eyes in a hissing release. Darkness, though, grows like a cave formation. Slow drips from the uneasiness harden over the surface of a slick knob of pain. Over time, the darkness crusts in unpredictable layers, growing at such a pace that one doesn’t notice it has filled every cavern under the skin until movement becomes difficult or even impossible.

Darkness never boils over. Darkness remains inside. (Ch. 4)

Cover: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie StiefvaterAll the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stiefvater
US, 2017

When I first heard about All the Crooked Saints, I didn’t think I would rush out to read it when it came out; something about the description failed to grab me. But as it grew closer to publication date, and seeing more about it online, I decided to place a hold at the library and a short time after its release I had it in my hands. It turned out, for various reasons, to be the perfect book at just that time.

Set in 1960s Colorado, All the Crooked Saints is the story of the Soria family, some of whose members can perform the miracle of giving physical shape to another’s darkness. That person must then complete the hard work of overcoming the darkness for themselves, and a Soria must never help—for then their own darkness will be made manifest, and a Soria’s darkness is said to be greater than any other’s.

Although it is not a very long book (around 300 pages if I recall correctly), it is even lighter on plot, with a story spanning only a few short days. But with a wide and varied cast of characters, it is more intent on their inner lives and the desolate, but beautiful, landscape that surrounds them. Each character carries some sort of “darkness,”—either of their own making or of external forces (or a combination of both)—whether or not it has been made manifest for all to see. Just as the physical form of the darkness prevents the pilgrim from leaving the confines of the Soria compound, so their previous internal darkness prevented them from leaving some hinderance behind, from moving forward. Although at times the point seemed overly-direct, All the Crooked Saints is Steifvater’s metaphor for how she feels we should all approach our own inner demons, with hard work that ultimately only we can solve, not anyone around us, a message no less true for its directness. And ultimately it is also a story about hope, something that is so easy to lose when all of the news and social media around us seem to want to inspire us to despair instead.

Her dress was wet, and so was her skin. This was because, despite the porch roof, it was raining on her. Rain originated from nowhere and spattered on her hair and face and shoulders and clothing, then ran off the stairs and formed a fast-running rivulet into the brush. Every part of her dress was covered with monarch butterflies, their orange-and-black stained-glass wings likewise soaked. They clung to her, unable to do anything but slowly move their wings or climb across the fabric. (Ch 3)

Unlike her previous novels, All the Crooked Saints departs from Stiefvater’s beloved Celtic mythology in favor of Mexican folklore, and also sets aside her more familiar fantasy techniques for the realm of magical realism, stretching and straining the bounds of reality in such a matter-of-fact way, that even the more surprising of the miracles seem natural. The previous Stiefvater fiction I’ve read has always remained so grounded in the familiar world, however, that this doesn’t feel so great of a departure, and at times, it seemed to me less “magical realism” and more “tall tale” – prompting me to wonder, what the bounds are of each? A line of investigation, if my library pile weren’t pointedly reminding me of other obligations, I would follow up on sooner rather than later.

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