Trouble the Saints

Alaya Dawn Johnson
Trouble the Saints Cover

Trouble the Saints


I really enjoyed this novel and it's been really interesting contrasting this with another recent novel I have read (N.K. Jemisin's 'The City We Became'). I didn't plan it, but it's been rather interesting reading two novels both set in New York, and both responding to the legacy and presence of racism. Both novels consider the impact of colonialism and in the acknowledgements both authors were at one time part of the same writers group.

Whilst I found, 'The City We Became' a more thought provoking novel in terms of the themes and my response to them, 'Trouble the Saints' is a far superior novel in my view but both take very different approaches to it's subject matter.

I will avoid plot spoilers here, but I should come out and say, the structure of the novel is particularly interesting and describing it here will spoil a surprise I think so you have been warned to LOOK AWAY NOW......

'Trouble the Saints' is a novel set in New York City during World War II. The setting is as close to 'our' world as can be possible with one exception, some people have 'saints hands', that is, they have a power in their hands. Ostensibly they are to change the world for the better, but in practice the hands rarely seem to do the holder any good.

Phyllis Green, appears to be the lead character in the novel and she is quickly introduced as an assassin for a local Russian gangster. Her 'hands' enable her the power to meet out death to others. She justifies her murderous actions on the proviso that she is only killing 'bad' people - other gangsters and criminals. It's a familiar trope, but it is pretty effective and it is evident that Phyllis (or Pea as she is known to friends) is struggling to come to terms with what she does and desires a retirement of sorts.

Johnson absolutely nails the setting here, building most of the action around a nightclub called the Pelican. There is the historical backdrop of Prohibition, and the inference of bootleg booze being sold. It is a place where the very best come to be seen being very well dressed, entertained by the best in jazz and other art and music and dance. It's a place filled with gangsters, with an undercurrent of violence and yet it is a place that oozes flirtatious glances and desire. A place where a light touch on the arm could send someone swooning whilst in the back office someone is being beaten to death. There is just so much I loved about this backdrop, I really felt as a reader I was there.

So, the reader thinks they are reading a story about an assassin wanting to retire then something dramatic happens and it feels like the book just ends, and yet we are only a third into the book. So here is the structure I mentioned earlier (and I deliberately wrote this now rather than earlier to give you a get out if you don't want it spoilt). It turns out 'Trouble the Saints' is really three interconnected stories written from the perspective of three characters who are all interconnected as friends and lovers. I felt the structure was really clever, because the three 'books' work self-contained, but it's really important to recognise that this is not three novellas stitched together. The three books work really well because of the interconnectivity - they form part of a whole and the story is richer looking at this from each point of view. I really enjoyed feeling that at times I was misdirected by the characters as I realised that sometimes their version of the truth may be dishonest or inaccurate and I tried to understand what really happened. Johnson shows, doesn't tell, and gives us unreliable voices for us to make up our own minds, and now a few hours after finishing the book I find myself reflecting more and more on how well it hangs together.

The second section is from the perspective of Pea's lover Dev and again I don't want to get into specifics but the central element of this story is a political battle over an old cemetery and the abuse of power (particularly that of white men). The 1940's setting can be challenging to read at times, but this is a place where segregation still exists, a white person won't shake a black person's hand and lynchings aren't something from a horrible past, but a real threat to a black person accused of something.

It's in this section where we learn more of the 'saints hands' and how it is something only people who are victims of colonialism can experience - there are four, maybe five characters with some kind of power from their hands and all of them are either black, indigenous American or Indian - all victims of white colonialism. The inference is that the hands are to help lift people out of their oppression. There is a strong theme in the book that white people crave what they can't have (the hands) and fear them, but also take and destroy what they both desire, yet do not understand. The violence of a white society is never far for our characters, but again outside of the themes, there is an exciting story that develops and surprises.

The third section is about the pregnancy of Pea from the point of view of her best friend Tamara, a former lover also of Dev. Tamara doesn't have 'hands' but is an oracle of sorts, reading playing cards like Tarot. The last third of the book is possibly the least exciting but it's where a lot of the bigger questions and themes come out. Tamara, as an oracle is a reporter of the future, but not an actor or influencer and this section is where she challenges that self-imposed view of herself. This section also is set against a backdrop of her partner and Dev fighting in the Second World War - in Negro units. I pretty much despise the idea of anyone fighting for a nation state, but there is something truly evil about the state calling up people to fight who aren't even considered full citizens with equal rights back home. I felt really angry reading this and wanted to cry out, not just for all the people who died but also for those who came back, still subject to a racist state.

We are built up to a conclusion, and you know it is coming, but by gosh it punched hard when it got there. I wasn't quite in tears, but I felt so sad for the characters knowing there was not a happy ending. There is a certain scene which was very real at the time (and still real now in places like Palestine where people live under apartheid) which made me tremble with the injustice and cruelty of it. I imagine it happened many times too during the 20th Century.

It's a novel with tenderness though, despite the characters doing some horrible things you can't help care for them. There is a moment where a gangster boss dances with a character that absolutely melted my heart, even knowing he was a brutal remorseless murderer (or was he, really?)

I felt I learned much from the novel (especially about the proto-illegal lottery called 'Policy' or 'the numbers'), I felt engaged with a story that captivated me and characters that despite some of their actions I rooted for.