Day of All Saints, by Patricia Grace King. Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, November 2017. 96 pages. $15.00, paper.
In Patricia Grace King’s Day of All Saints, a young Martín Silva de Choc meets Abby, an American student studying abroad at the Guatemalan language school for which he teaches. Abby’s long blonde braids and hypnotic laughter bring promise of a lovelier life in Chicago, but her presence is a stone in the water of his secret-laden past—one which, with Martín’s help, his abuela has spent the last fifteen years shielding him from. We begin on a Halloween afternoon, standing in the yard of a middle-class home where Martín is working as a landscaper on a fiancé visa. Abby has disappeared, and for days Martín has worked and reworked their relationship in his mind, looking for the moment Abby cracked, for something that might lead him to where she is now, or reveal why she’s left. From here, we move forward in time through a series of vignettes, roving between Martín’s search for Abby, fragmented glimpses of their relationship, and the dimly lit memories of Martín’s past, of his survival of the Guatemalan civil war and of his missing family, which are illuminated both by his abuela’s storytelling, and by his own decision to dig into those memories he’d convinced himself were never there. Ultimately, we follow Martín as he grapples with the reality of loss, both recent and forgotten, and wait hopefully for the moment when he is able to face the wreckage left behind by a country at war, and his own attempts to avoid confronting the truth of his family.
In just ninety-six pages, King weaves the multi-threaded blanket of a family struck with tragedy, and the attempt to find oneself by way of love, and, maybe even more so, by way of escape. King’s structural choices, the shifts in time and in location, not only offer simultaneous revelation of Martín’s past and present, but they foreshadow and illuminate both the ways in which our characters change, and the ways in which they are blinded by refusing to do so. Martín’s past, the past of a fractured Guatemalan people, erects the present, and, therefore, the future, and King’s brevity reaches to encompass the edges of love, war, and impermanence in one graceful, striking sweep. Though one might be skeptical of the ability to address such weighted themes in so few pages, King proves that minimalism amplifies trauma, and even honors it in ways that expounding cannot.
In addition to structure, King’s brilliance with language squeezes and stretches the tragic so that her readers might touch its threshold for themselves. In the living room of Abby’s mother’s house, King writes:
The two women in the semi-darkness are like twin cocoons, white wrapped and formless and sunk in their seats, and the air around him is thick with a dank, almost animal smell, threaded with something else—oilier, sharper—that makes Martín want to retch. A little hammer inside his own skull starts pinging away at the bone … No one has asked him, but what he wants most in this world is to sit down in the flickering darkness and let it seep in through his skin till it fills him, it fills him, and shuts down his heart and his brain.
We stand with Martín as he faces Abby, mere feet from her, yet helpless against the force of her mother, the force of half-invented whispers that have split the final thread of their youthful optimism, their certainty of love. We feel the hollowness of the room, smell the oil of a half-eaten bag of chips, are struck in our own skulls by that little hammer of realization, of understanding what is slipping through Martín’s fingers. We watch him fight the urge to dissolve, to creep inside himself and remain there forever. Later, when Martín has left the house, King writes:
Martín stands alone in Abby’s parents’ front yard. The skeleton strung from the oak tree has been spun by the wind so that now, like a child made to stand with his nose to the wall, its plastic face grazes the tree. Martín approaches it slowly. A skeleton: better, at least, than all the candy-colored phantoms and happy-faced mummies of this bizarre holiday. A plain skeleton, even one made of plastic, is a bit more like the truth. What could it mean except we’re all finite? Everything, everything ends.
King uses Halloween decorations, tacky bandana-ghosts and strung-up skeletons, among other things—banana trees and red platform heels—as a vehicle for Martín’s thoughts, an avenue for the reader to move closer into him. Though we’re told his story from the third person, our proximity to Martín, and the peculiar objects which litter his life, provide crucial moments of introspection, moments in which the diaphanous, fleeting nature of life and meaning are revealed if only by a flash.
Patricia Grace King’s Day of All Saints is not merely a story of the allusivity of love, but of life and truth and self-acceptance in the wake of disaster. Abby is not merely a channel through which to illuminate Martín’s struggles, but a character faced with her own pains—naïve to the reality of partnership, suffocating under a manipulative family incapable of loving her for who she is. And Martín is not merely a survivor, but a heartbreaking example of the far-reaching devastation of war. King’s novella respects the brutality of civil unrest, the hardship of survival, and makes these realities accessible to her reader, so that they might experience fractured glimpses of those pains themselves. It is in her woven structure, in her compelling language, that we come to know Martín, to know his abuela, his love for Abby. It is in her ability to handle trauma with grace and honesty, that we start to see King’s characters in ourselves.
Rachel C. Reeher is a senior at Winthrop University in South Carolina, and the Editor-in-Chief of The Anthology, Winthrop’s Arts & Lit magazine. When she finally graduates, she’ll be pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing.