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Trouble the Saints


Trouble the Saints

TROUBLE THE SAINTS brims with a bright, bloody brutality, an electric knife wound dug through the meat of history to get at the splintered bone of unmistakable, vicious truth. Alaya Dawn Johnson crafts an ambitious work of love and power with a lyric, deft hand.

Harlem draws a troubled breath on the eve of World War II. Within it, there are those who have specific magic --- dreams and “hands” said to be given to them by the saints, though the nature and origin of these powers cut a biting question through the narrative. Some with the hands can sense threats or divine a shadow of the future, but for some, their hands make them threats of their own. This particular power is true for Phyllis LeBlanc --- “Pea,” as she’s called --- and her hands make her deadly. She’s also light enough to pass for white in some contexts, and this combination means that she serves as an expert assassin for a white mobster, Victor. He promises Pea that the people he has her kill deserve to die, that her powers are being used for justice, and that she’s making the world a better place. She believes him for a good long while.

"Alaya Dawn Johnson delivers a haunting literary evocation. TROUBLE THE SAINTS is brutal, clever and true."

The novel is a triptych of voices, each picking up where the other left off, giving us three sides to the same story. The first belongs to Pea. The second is Devajyoti, her biracial Indian lover who has hands of his own and also works for Victor longer than he should. The final piece is Tamara, a Black snake dancer with a big heart and a knack for divining the cards, who loves them both.

Johnson writes TROUBLE THE SAINTS with a balance of intricate, poetic magic and sharp, unapologetic ruthlessness. Violence soaks many of these pages, not primarily in the doings of Pea’s practiced assassinations, or even in the overarching shadow of the war, but in the viciousness of racism and colorism and the ways in which they permeate every moment of a non-white person’s life. The violence of white supremacy is always there, staying with them as the novel moves a decade into the future: inescapable and impossible to reason with, save for with the saints’ hands and the volatile power they bestow.

Pea’s passing is a central through line. It affords her the ability to walk through much of the world as easily as she does, but it also can be deeply isolating and alienating for her, which doesn’t discount the life-saving privilege it bestows. More than that, the perception of her race is dependent on the eye of the beholder, especially when she’s with Dev or Tammy. And when a white person understands her to be Black, there can be devastating consequences.

TROUBLE THE SAINTS is very much about power --- to whom it’s been given, how it manifests and what it demands from its bearer. It’s also about love --- love between imperfect people, love against a backdrop of injustice and survival, love when it’s passionate, complicated, devastating and real. Love can see you and know you, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That doesn’t mean it’s enough or that it gets to win. It doesn’t save a person from being complicit. There’s sacrifice here, and it’s not always given freely. There isn’t always a choice. There’s always chance, and the deck is stacked, a legacy that was cultivated in direct opposition to the protagonists.

Alaya Dawn Johnson delivers a haunting literary evocation. TROUBLE THE SAINTS is brutal, clever and true.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 24, 2020

Trouble the Saints
by Alaya Dawn Johnson