All the Crooked Saints

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Maggie Stiefvater,  All the Crooked Saints, Scholastic Australia,  Oct 2017, 311pp.,  $19.99 (pbk),  ISBN 9781742767611

All the Crooked Saints begins as a kind of road trip across the deserts of America. Pete is hitch-hiking, somewhat aimlessly, after being rejected by the army because of a hole in the heart. What can he do now, when a soldier was what he’d always thought he’d be, like his father and grandfather before him?  He is picked up by Tony, a DJ who is trying to escape his fame and who drives an enormous car – he buys his cars by size, rather than anything else.  Tony is heading for the tiny town of Bisho Raro because he has heard that there is a family there who can perform miracles. Pete thinks he might as well go along for the ride and along the way he falls in love with the desert landscape. And more than that, when he arrives in Bisho Raro with Tony, he sees and falls in love with Beatriz.

Beatriz is one of the Soria family, who are supposed to be able to perform miracles, although only one in each generation is labelled the Saint, the one to whom the task of implementing the miracles is delegated. Currently it is Daniel, one of Beatriz’s cousins. This is a tiny town, a long way from anything larger, a setting constructed by the author to focus on the characters and to intensify the action. Although many of the ‘pilgrims’ stay on in the little town, the Soria family remains the focal point.

The ‘miracles’ are really about confronting our inner selves, our fears and worst traits. It is a two-part process where the pilgrim is helped by Daniel, the Saint, to recognise what is causing their ‘inner darkness’. This recognition leads to an exaggeration of the very thing the person is concerned about, sometimes in quite bizarre ways. Tony, for example, becomes twenty feet tall, so it is impossible not to notice him. It is then up to the pilgrim to confront and ‘cure’ this problem. There is a touch of magic and fantasy in all this which adds to the intrigue.

The depiction of the tiny town, surrounded by desert, gives a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere to the setting. The desert itself becomes almost another character, aware of Pete’s affection for it and waiting, both menacing and fascinating, to interact with anyone who ventures into it.  Daniel, who makes a selfless and heroic gesture to venture there alone in order to prevent others being contaminated by what he perceives as ‘Soria darkness’, almost dies out there.

This is a thought-provoking novel, which nevertheless has some lovely touches of both humour and romance. It explores notions of ‘badness’ and ‘goodness’ and valorises love and companionship. Beatriz’s parents, Francesco and Antonia, who are separated but still living in that tiny town, fill their days with pointless activities – she making endless paper flowers, he trying fruitlessly to breed a black rose – they pine for each other and the author makes it clear that busyness is no substitute for companionship. There is a joyful reunion near the end of the book when a number of other couples also recognise their need for each other.

All the characters – both the main and those more peripheral – are strongly drawn. This is an unusual and multi-layered book which will repay a number of readings.

Reviewed by Margot Hillel

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