‘The Five Wounds’: A family perseveres in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s big-hearted novel
Amadeo Padilla, one of the lead characters in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s fine-grained domestic saga “The Five Wounds” (Norton, 448 pp., ★★★1/2 out of four), is holding his family together the only way he knows how: with good intentions, but ineptly.
Unemployed in a poor New Mexico town, he’s eager to support Angel, his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, and prove himself to his disappointed mother, Yolanda. Alas, his solutions include a dodgy windshield-repair scheme and playing Jesus during Holy Week, where he opts to have actual nails driven into his hands. He’d hoped the scarifying act of authenticity would prove how nobly self-sacrificing he is. Instead, “there’s only this confused searing clamor” and another problem to fix.
As with the hands, so with the family. “Wounds” is based on a story in Quade’s excellent 2015 debut collection, “Night at the Fiestas,” and for her first novel she expands the cast of characters while intensifying the traumas. Angel is bright but precariously supported by a nonprofit school, where she develops a crush on a fellow teenage mother. Angel’s teacher, Brianna, pursues an ill-advised relationship with Amadeo. And Yolanda, the sole source of steady financial support, has inoperable brain cancer, which she tries to hide from the family.
“The Five Wounds,” by Kirstin Valdez Quade. (Photo: Norton)
“Since when did everyone around him become so fragile?” Amadeo thinks, as if he weren’t so brittle himself. Quade is masterful with that fragility. She’s sensitive to how the Padillas’ financial precarity means that the least shift in power and authority can disrupt the family’s prospects. Angel squabbling with a classmate, or with Brianna, changes how and where she can raise her infant son. Amadeo choosing to step up, or refusing to, can smooth over or complicate a day.
Quade has taken on a sizable task – covering multiple generations of Padillas, plus friends and lovers. In the early pages, that sometimes makes for draggy passages where she’s arranging the plot furniture. But once Angel’s son, Connor, arrives and the stakes for the novel increase, the novel runs more smoothly and immersively. Quade delivers a lot of detail – Who’s available to drive a car? Is Amadeo drinking? Where’s Connor’s father? How far along is Yolanda’s cancer, and how is it affecting her? But every action matters.
Author Kirstin Valdez Quade. (Photo: Holly Andres)
So does each emotion, which Quade is well-attuned to. Yolanda wants to hide her illness, a feeling that “smacks appealingly of martyrdom.” Amadeo wants to obscure his professional failures and his drinking, though each bout of fear or shame snowballs into a problem that somebody – usually Angel – has to address. Angel herself is a full-blooded and convincing fictional creation, bright and full of potential but doomed to absorb everybody else’s mistakes. She is “sick of irrevocability: of fights, of illness, of death.”
Quade, to her credit, doesn’t resolve those complications with a happy-family conclusion – though, true to the religious themes that run through the book, she leaves room for a minor miracle to creep in. Dumb luck is part of precarious living too, and in this big-hearted novel, Quade knows how to make use of it.
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