“Frances was pretending to be someone else”: the opening line of the title story in this remarkable debut collection tells us just what we need to know about a bookish 16-year-old eager to let loose at the Fiestas celebrations in Santa Fe—and about Kirstin Valdez Quade’s fictional enterprise. Character after character in her 10 stories is inspired, terrified, cleansed, confused, and often disappointed by an urge for transformation. Imaginative zeal is Quade’s signature, too. She piles on the thrilling dangers for Frances: a “man-crazy” cousin, a mysterious man bearing a lunch sack stuffed with money, a bacchanalian scene at the Fiestas.
In almost every story, Quade goes for vivid spectacle and theatrical plot twists. They often involve the “miracle-laden, medieval Hispanic Catholicism” she has said she grew up with in northern New Mexico, where much of her fiction is set. In “The Five Wounds,” a ne’er-do-well named Amadeo is chosen to play Jesus in a drawn-out Lenten enactment of the Passion. He struggles to purify himself through the ordeal, in which real nails play a gruesome role. But Quade focuses just as intensely on the subtler customs, cruelties, kindnesses, and skewed alliances of precarious family life. A visit from Amadeo’s pregnant teenage daughter—long estranged—occasions his most acute revelation. If Quade ever yearned to escape her archaic Catholic heritage and redefine herself, let’s be glad she didn’t. Her vision has thrived on its fierce, flesh-conscious desire for transcendence.
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