26 March 2009

The Mystery of Grace

The new edition of Interzone is now in the shops, so I thought I’d share my contribution with you – a review of Charles de Lint’s new novel, The Mystery of Grace:

Charles de Lint is a master of the art of finding the magic in the everyday, specifically, in the everyday life of urban North America. Many of his previous novels have been set in and around the city of Newford, but in The Mystery of Grace he begins to explore a new setting in the American south-west: a town called Santo del Vado Viejo with a rich ethnic mix that allows him to draw on European, Mexican and Indian magical and mythical traditions.

One of the reasons I always enjoy de Lint’s writing is his very strong characterization and this novel is no exception. The Mystery of Grace is built around two main characters: Grace, a Latina motor mechanic, and John Burns, an Anglo graphic designer and would-be artist. At the beginning of the novel, Grace is slowly coming to terms with the recent death of her grandfather while, years after the event, John still feels guilty about the death of his kid brother. De Lint has the gift of being able to take us to the very heart of a character’s passions – in the case of Grace, her passion for classic cars, rockabilly and tattoos. His description of the relationships between characters is also excellent; for example, he sketches a convincing portrayal of Grace’s relationship with her grandfather entirely through her memories. More important for the development of the book is the way he traces the gradual development of the relationship between Grace and John, and particularly the healing it brings about in John’s life. But his gift for characterization extends beyond the central characters; I think it is because he genuinely likes his characters that he enables the reader to sympathize with a character, to feel that you would want them as friends.

De Lint’s world building is as strong as ever. This time, he has created a pocket universe inhabited by those who have died within a few blocks of the Alverson Arms – the apartment building where Grace lives. The rules of this world have been carefully thought through and dovetail with those of the otherworldly realms of his other novels and short stories. But unlike those, this is a closed claustrophobic realm and its inhabitants are condemned to mere existence enlivened only by the opportunity for twice-yearly visits to the world they have left behind.

And so to the plot, which sadly is very difficult to describe without spoilers. It contains two main story lines. One is a romance: John and Grace meet at a Halloween party. Unfortunately one of them died a fortnight earlier and is only allowed to return to this world twice a year. In spite of that restriction, their relationship flourishes. There is a resolution (at least implicitly) to their problem about two-thirds of the way into the story, but it is by no means as straightforward as you might expect.

The other plot strand is the mystery of the Alverson Arms world. Who created it? And why? And what can the souls trapped in this world do? Inevitably there is a villain behind it, but once again de Lint’s gift for characterization comes to the fore and gives the reader some insight into what has driven her to do this. Less satisfactory is the religious dimension that creeps into the resolution of this aspect of the plot. In most of his novels, the central character finds the inner strength to overcome the problem that confronts them. However, in this case, a kind of quasi-religious faith is invoked by the inhabitants of the Alverson Arms world as they struggle against the woman who has trapped them there.

For me, his treatment of faith (and particularly veneration of Our Lady of Altagracia) is a significant flaw. But even a flawed de Lint novel is essential reading because of the way he brings his world and his characters to life and the way he imbues the ordinary with a patina of magic.

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