The Memory of Pain
Book Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
If there is anything that unites us all, no matter who we are or where we come from, it is that we cannot pass through this life without pain, sacrifice, even suffering. This is one of our few guarantees. The question becomes: What do you do with your suffering? And there is a deeper one behind that: Why does it happen to us in the first place?
These matters have engaged religions around the world for time immemorial. They can also be a rich proving ground for novelists—but only the brave ones need apply. For you can plow through the nettles of these questions as much as you like, but progress towards answers will not come easily. If you’re going to attempt to write about the mystery of suffering, you’re in for a hard road. And there is no promise you will come out any the wiser. It might even make things worse!
That is what I found myself admiring about the debut novel from Kirstin Valdez Quade, a writer who hails from New Mexico but who now teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey. Writing the book took guts. Valdez Quade won acclaim for an earlier story collection called Night at the Fiestas (2015), which earned her a National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award. Her brand-new novel is called The Five Wounds and is an expansion of one of these earlier stories.
The title is a reference to the physical injuries borne by Jesus Christ from the nails of his crucifixion and the Roman centurion’s lance in his side, as recounted in the Gospel of John. The religious imagery is integral to the New Mexico community in which this saga takes place, a small town called Las Penas. But a reader does not need to be religious to appreciate this book. For it is a cross-generational story filled with resilient, believable characters grappling with real-world struggles and living with the fallout from their frequently questionable decisions.
One of these is Amadeo Padilla, a damaged young man well acquainted with calamity, who, as the novel begins, is invited by a group of elders from his Catholic community known as the hermanidad, or brotherhood, to play the role of Jesus in a traditional rite. In this annual performance, nine men trudge up a large hill to recreate the crucifixion in a kind of Passion Play. Because he is thirty-three years old, the same age as Jesus at the time of his death, Amadeo regards this invitation as a sign, an opportunity to “feel a little of what Christ felt.” He grapples with his worthiness to receive it.
It is while he is in “training” to play this role, which is considered a special honor, that Amadeo returns from a dry run to the trailer he shares with his middle-aged mother, Yolanda, to find his pregnant, fifteen-year-old daughter Angel sitting on the doorstep. Having had a falling out with Amadeo’s ex-wife, Angel has decided to move in with him while she brings her child to term. This sets off a chain of events through the baby’s arrival and first year of life over which the rest of the story unfolds.
The Five Wounds is not concerned with proselytization. Valdez Quade is not seeking converts in spinning this gritty, emotionally fraught story. What she has done, impressively, is to create numerous characters whose experiences and circumstances are consequential enough to evoke deeper questions.
Equally impressive about The Five Wounds is the way it gradually expands its scope into the complicated lives of numerous, diverse individuals. From Amadeo’s struggles with sobriety and paternal responsibility to his daughter’s overwhelming challenge as a teenage mother to Yolanda’s grappling with a terminal illness and beyond, Valdez Quade examines the grim realities that confront essentially good people in a remote, dust-swept community that much of the world would not give a second look. Through each shaky choice these characters make, and each setback from what one of them describes as an “essentially malevolent universe” that is “booby-trapped with disaster,” we witness their struggles through a mantle of dread, in anticipation of where their lives seem to be taking them.
The Five Wounds is the work of a fresh and invigoratingly talented new voice. However, it is not an easy read emotionally, and its unflinching gaze may not be savored by all readers. This is no saccharine, religious tale where the clouds part at the end and light descends upon all those still standing. But I admired the eye-opening glimpse into the lives of both men and women, with meager resources or steady influences, who must recover from blows that seem to land early and often.
Frequently while reading this novel, the reader almost flinches from the imagined pain of some of these blows. But The Five Wounds is that rare novel where the rich characters not only endure their suffering, they reflect on it—even grow from it. Near the end of the book, as Amadeo contemplates his life, Valdez Quade offers the kind of observation this compassionate and gripping novel is suffused with: “If he can’t remember the pain, how could it have meant anything at all?”
Photo credit by Jude Joseph Lovell.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.