The Five Wounds
By Kirstin Valdez Quade
W.W. Norton & Company, 2021
Paperback edition, Jan. 25, 2022
448 pages, $17.95
Kirstin Valdez Quade burst onto the literary scene in 2015 with Night at the Fiestas, a short story collection that examined the lives of working-class people in northern New Mexico. Fiestas won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for best debut and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Valdez Quade was also named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” writer, an honor that recognizes young debut fiction writers “whose work promises to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape.”
The Five Wounds, published in March 2021, is her first novel, and it is an exceptional family drama that has been nominated for virtually every literary award. In December, Valdez Quade was awarded The Center for Fiction’s 2021 First Novel Prize for The Five Wounds, which was selected by a panel of judges that knows a good novel when they read one—Alexander Chee, Susan Choi, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, and Dinaw Mengestu. Last week, it was named a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.
The Five Wounds follows the Padilla family of Las Penas, New Mexico over the course of a year. Amadeo is a feckless 33-year-old living with his mother Yolanda; he’s unemployed and spends his days watching TV and drinking beer. It’s Holy Week and Amadeo has been given the role of Jesus in the Good Friday procession performed by the local Catholic men’s group. It’s the leader’s hope that this will put Amadeo on the right path after many years of self-destructive living. To everyone’s surprise, he is fervently committed to this chance at a rebirth and is preparing in the best method acting style.
But then his estranged 15-year-old daughter Angel shows up at Yolanda’s house, pregnant. She’s been fighting with her mother, Marissa, and decides to bail out after being verbally abused by Marissa’s live-in boyfriend. She has nowhere else to go and hopes Yolanda, the family’s heart and soul, will take her in and help her with the baby. And maybe she’ll be able to develop a relationship with her father, who has maintained a hands-off approach to parenthood. She’s been kicked out of school and is now enrolled at the Smart Starts program for teen mothers. She’s the best student in the class and has found a surrogate mother in her young teacher, Brianna, who is smart and caring and imposes some structure and discipline on Angel’s chaotic life. She also develops a love-hate relationship with her troubled but charismatic classmate, Lizette, in which she learns some lessons outside of the classroom.
Yolanda is an indispensable staffer in the clerk’s office of the New Mexico legislature in Santa Fe. She has long indulged Amadeo but has run out of patience and desperately hopes his newfound faith produces much-needed change. She welcomes Angel, with the hope that her son and granddaughter will become a real family and support each other as they move into new chapters in their lives. But the situation becomes complicated when she becomes seriously ill. Who will take care of everyone now? These people clearly can’t be left to fend for themselves. They know how to hurt themselves and others but not how to put things back together.
Valdez Quade has a gift for bringing these flawed but very human characters to life. Like our own family members, they can be supportive and loving but also unpredictable and frustratingly stupid and stubborn. You’ll alternate between wanting to hug them and give them a good shake.
Angel, Amadeo, Yolanda, and Marissa simply want to love and be loved, but their words (or inability to find the words) and actions keep getting in the way. They misunderstand each other, nurse grudges, marinate in their low self-esteem, and seem to have little to no luck. But Angel’s presence (and the looming arrival of her baby) is the catalyst for a series of events that manage, ever so tenuously, to pull things together. I finished The Five Wounds a week ago and I’m still thinking about the characters and hoping Angel and her baby Connor are doing well. There is great tenderness, passion, humor, and hope in these pages.
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