July 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘The Five Wounds’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade
A young down-and-out man in a New Mexico village seeks transcendence in a ceremonial role as Jesus, in this debut novel

“This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus. The hermanos have been preparing in the dirt yard behind the morada.” This opening of Kirstin Valdez Quade’s surprising and beautiful The Five Wounds (Allen & Unwin) is a road into a foreign country. What Jesus? Hermanos? Morada? Where is this?

This is Las Penas, a mountain village near Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of America’s poorest states. In villages like this the long Spanish, Catholic and Indian traditions linger. Most of the families have been on their land for hundreds of years. Amadeo is one of a tiny group of men who every year re-enact the walk to Calvary and the crucifixion of Jesus. They are hermanos, brothers in belief, and they honour the compassion and courage of Jesus with solemnity and awe. Their meeting place, the morada, used to be a gas station and no women are allowed inside, not even a traditional plaster or carved Virgin.

Solemnity and awe are not regular features in these hard lives. Amadeo, 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified, is unemployed, alcoholic and dependent upon Yolanda, his mother, for the roof over his head and the beer in his hand. Being chosen to be Jesus is a small miracle to Amadeo; this is the turning point in his life. Enacting this beautiful story will wash his own life clean. As he cuts, shaves and hammers the heavy cross he must carry, he feels “born for the role”. And in a flush of compassion for himself, identifying with the unattainable compassion of Jesus, he wonders if he could ask for nails in his hands, two of the five wounds of Christ on the cross. What Amadeo seeks is transcendence.

Returning from the morada, elated with the wonder of his life, he finds his 15-year-old daughter sitting on the step. Angel has fought with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, and has come to live with her father and grandmother. She is turning 16 in a month and is eight months pregnant. She refuses to say who the father is. Angel is the last person Amadeo wants to see – “his mind should be trained on sacrifice and resurrection, not his daughter’s teen pregnancy”. His judgement is as instant as his drop into reality.

But Angel is here to stay. She’s attending a program called Smart Starts!, run by a charity for disadvantaged adolescents. Angel loves Brianna, the organised and doubtfully trained young white woman who is teaching them, and she takes every word to heart: cola will melt her baby’s bones; meditation is useful; power stance, legs apart, arms akimbo, gives you control. Angel is still a child but she’s smart, funny and has a wider sense of the world than either of her parents. Or Brianna, but she doesn’t know this. Angel understands desire, not just for sex – which she likes – but in every aspect of life. Like her father, Angel has longings. Yolanda, the phenomenal and ordinary matriarch in this family, and perhaps the main reason why Amadeo remains a child despite his age, has also loved her granddaughter unconditionally. So, in a world where men are still the masters and women the servants, Angel is able to become someone other than what her heritage might have mapped out for her.

The novel covers one year in the life of this family, opening with the re-enactment and ending exactly a year later with a new Jesus. Nobody’s perfect, The Five Wounds suggests, and nobody is doomed to repeat their entire inheritance, no matter how small or apparently ordinary one’s life is. We all long for something other than this, this we can see. The radiant names, Amadeo, Angel, Yolanda, all have echoes of other possibilities. This novel started life a decade ago as a New Yorker short story, and it’s Valdez Quade’s first. A decade of work shows. The writing is underpinned by a rare kindness of observation of human behaviour – an empathy for those not-you. It is brilliant.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, July 2021
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