The Premise: Arturo lives in a shack near Mexico’s border with the USA, with no tangible hope of a better future. When his friend Faustino reappears after several months’ absence, it is with a dangerous request; having stolen from his gangster boss, Faustino needs Arturo to win a card game to help him repay the debt before it’s discovered, because the consequences will be a painful death. A large part of the novel centres on this card game and the catastrophic decisions Arturo makes in the pursuit of money and, with it, an escape.
Thoughts: the opening chapters of Saint Death are quite extraordinary; Sedgwick begins by describing “a girl floating in the river,” whose death will be dismissed by the police as “just another wetback…drowned while trying to cross the river.” It’s a brutal way to begin a story which only gets more horrendous in its subject matter. From here, the narrative moves to describing the area of Anapra as looking like “a three year old god three together some cardboard boxes and empty coffee tins and Coke bottles in the sandpit of the Chihuahuan desert, and then forget it. Left it to its own devices.” It’s a starkly effective way to introduce a merciless landscape and it means that, by the time we meet Arturo, we’re already aware of the challenges he faces. With current events as they are, it’s a spookily prescient novel, forcing to the surface the terror of illegal immigration, with characters transported to “El Norte” only to be forced to act as drug mules, while life on the other side of the border is an endless cycle of death and destitution. It’s not the cheeriest book I’ve read.
So the setting and background are astonishingly realised. The vastness of this cultural and political backdrop means that Arturo’s story seems incongruously small, but it presumably represents that of many desperate people in real life. The story is simple, really; he needs money, but then he gets greedy and things get very scary. There’s a horrible sense of inevitability to events once Arturo has demonstrated his appalling decision-making skills, but then the fate of everyone in Anapra seemed predestined at the start.
Aside from the harrowing nature of the plot and its context, Sedgwick really immersed me in the culture of Anapra, particularly in the superstitions surrounding Santa Muerta, or Saint Death. I love to read something that shows me a completely different culture, and Saint Death certainly did that.
In Conclusion: it’s fair to say that Saint Death is a somewhat depressing read, but, in putting a human face on the massive issues of immigration and inequality, it’s supremely effective. I found Sedgwick’s writing extraordinary in places, even in describing the most horrific circumstances. It’s a sobering but very worthwhile read, and it says a lot about our world that you would probably think it was a fictional dystopia if you didn’t watch the news.