Trouble the Saints (2020), by Alaya Dawn Johnson, follows three people of color — Phyllis (whose friends call her Pea), Tamara and Dev — from the late 1930s into the American involvement in World War II. Not one of them is “ordinary”; Pea and Dev have “saint’s hands” that bestow a gift … or a curse. Tamara has inherited a deck of playing cards, and she’s an oracle. When the story opens, all three are trying to make a living working for the white gangster Victor in New York City.
Phyllis is light-skinned enough to pass for white, which she does, and the hands have given her the power to throw anything with amazing accuracy. She can balance things on her knuckles and the tips of her fingers; whatever she throws a knife at, she hits. The gangsters call her “Victor’s Angel,” meaning Angel of Death, and she is his assassin.
The hands have their own ideas about how things should go. They come to people — only marginalized people, nearly all people of color — after a dream. They give the “saint” who has them a burning desire to make things right. At first, Phyllis believes that Victor is sending her to kill people who are evil, especially white people who kill saints for their hands. As time goes on, Phyllis tries harder and harder to believe this, but the evidence that Victor is lying to her is overwhelming. Specifically, it is Victor who is killing people with saints’ hands and trying to steal their magic.
Dev’s hands show him when there is a threat nearby. Dev is conflicted; he is a man of peace, who deeply, wildly loves Pea, not in spite of what she does but perhaps because of it. When his moral conflict drives him away from her, he finds solace with Tamara, but Dev is meant to be with Pea and there is no doubt about it.
After a shocking act of violence, Pea and Dev move out of New York City to the upstate town Dev grew up in. Violence follows them, though, or maybe it was there the entire time. Meanwhile, Tamara wrestles with her obligation as a true oracle, and the right thing to do, when she just wants to be a dancer, a girl with no responsibilities.
The book unfolds in three sections, one from each point-of-view character. For a story steeped in blood — generations of it — much of it is deceptively quiet, especially the middle section, as Dev tries to settle down with Pea. Quiet, though, does not mean boring. Even while Pea and Dev are working in the garden or cooking a meal, the tension quivers just under the surface.
Trouble the Saints is a troubling book in the best way. All three characters are morally complicated, and the story is morally ambiguous. Even the magic of the hands seems ambiguous — Tamara wonders whether the hands are a magical gift, or actual possession.
Through the function of speakeasies, bookie joints and idyllic small towns, Johnson peels back the many layers of racism and exploitation. Much of it doesn’t take much peeling — it’s right on the surface. Some of it runs deep, into the beliefs of Pea and Dev themselves. This book has a message, but it doesn’t sacrifice characterization or story for it. I desperately wanted to know what would happen with Dev and Pea, whether Tamara would ever take up her legacy … and I wanted to know much more about Walter, a fascinating secondary character.
A few words about the prose: I’ll never look at a meat dumpling the same way again after reading this book. In one place, when Pea is in the bathtub after a kill, washing off the blood, she looks at the water and tells Dev it’s a sunset. There were so many passages to quote, but I’m going to choose a short one.
But the love she felt wasn’t really that kind — it was a blood love, a bone love, and it ricocheted off her other loves at unexpected angles.
The prose is gorgeous, the characters compelling. While I was disappointed in one aspect of the ending, I don’t think it’s the wrong one. (I can’t say more for fear of spoilers.)
I grew to care about these characters and the pain they suffered was hard to endure, even from a distance, at times. Trouble the Saints creates real people in a real world. Their deep magic lingers after you turn the last page.