For me, one of the great joys and pleasures of being an author and being part of the business is getting to meet and discover new-to-me talents. I am very quirky when it comes to reading; I do things like always leave one book by an author unread so I know I still have one more book of theirs to read–there are a couple of authors I am caught up on completely and waiting for another title is agony (looking at you, Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott and John Copenhaver).
I had heard of Scorched Grace before this past Saints and Sinners; Paul had asked me if I knew the author and explained everything about her and her debut novel several months before the event. I was of course completely fascinated; how can you not be fascinated by “her main character is a chain-smoking tattooed lesbian former punk rocker who is now a nun”? I immediately ordered a copy–isn’t that cover amazing?–and then at Saints and Sinners, I heard Margot read from it, and then attended a panel she was on and was terribly impressed. I decided it absolutely had to be my next read. It took me a lot longer to read than it should have–particularly since I was enjoying it so much–which has more to do with other obligations and pure exhaustion so shouldn’t be used as a gauge of the book’s quality.
Because this book deserves your full attention.
The devil isn’t in the details. Evil thrives in blind spots. In absence, negative space, like the haze of a sleight-of-hand trick. The details are God’s work. My job is keeping those details in order.
It took me four and a half hours to do the laundry and clean the stained glass, and my whole body felt wrecked. Every tendon strained. Even swallowing hurt. So, when my Sisters glided into the staff lounge for the meeting, folders and papers pressed against their black tunics, I slipped into the alley for some divine reflection–a smoke break. It was Sunday, dusk.
Vice on the sabbath, I know. Not my finest moment. But carpe diem.
An hour to myself was all I needed. An aura of menace taunted me all day. The air was thick and gritty, like it wanted to bare-knuckle fight. Sticky heat, typical in New Orleans, but worse that day. The sun, the swollen red of a mosquito bite. Slow simmer belying the violence of the boil. I couldn’t sit through another reprimand.
Sister Holiday is easily one of the most compelling, and interesting, main characters to come along in crime fiction in quite some time. And while there is a good and involving mystery at the core of this novel–who is setting the fires at the convent school? Who killed the maintenance worker? Was the fire set to cover up the murder or are they part and parcel of the same thing?–the absolute strength and power of this book comes from the narrative voice of this peculiar, not your average not-taken-her-vows-yet nun. She’s fascinating, and the voice is so strong and powerful: cynical yet innocent, bitter yet hopeful, Christian yet not. Her back story, which we learn through her progression of following clues and interviewing suspects and trying to put all the shifty pieces together, is enough in and of itself to keep the reader involved and turning the page.
And the language! My word, the power of Douahy’s language choices, sentence and paragraph structure! Here are some examples I marked:
Revenge is a stupid way to feel in control. Like all drugs, it doesn’t last, but it sure is fun in the moment. (p. 75)
Most boys couldn’t be trusted. Testosterone poisoning, Moose was fond of saying about guys and their bluster. I imagined the cartoon poison flowing through boy veins whenever my brother said that. (p. 79)
There is a sublime wholeness in holding one another, fitting into other bodies. We eat the body of Christ. We drink the blood. So many years later, Nina’s taste still laced my mouth–champagne, sweat, graphite licked off a thumb. (p.106)
New Orleans was ornate in every way, especially in its punishment. Like wispy fiberglass, the city doesn’t feel like it is of this world. (p. 107)
Everything in New Orleans is overdue, overgrown, dripping. The oak trees decked with boas of Spanish moss. Frogs creaked and peeped until the moon set. Morning glory vines strangled pink roofs and wisteria tentacles swayed in the cross breeze. A row of traditional, one-level shotgun homes: bright orange window frames, mint-green wooden shutters, and bright white columns A cat meowed on a nearby porch. (p. 123)
We are all like stained glass, beautiful and complicated and fragile as fuck. We all need care. And some of us don’t get what we deserve. (p. 233)
What a glorious read this was. I look forward to the next in the (planned) trilogy; and will probably revisit this one, too. Get a copy now.