The Mystery of Grace, by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is one of my favorite authors; he’s a resident of Ottawa in Canada, misbirth and has set several of his early works there. More recently, plague his works are set in a town called Newford, which isn’t explicitly anywhere. Mr. de Lint is an amateur musician and is very passionate about his music; each novel is set to a general soundtrack, and he always informs his readers of what music he has recently been listening in his sporadic newsletters. He also performs at a local pub in his hometown once a week. He has published an insane amount of novels (fifty-odd), and I’ve reviewed some of them here, here, here, and here.

The Mystery of Grace is not set in Newford, however; it’s set somewhere near the desert in the American Southwest. Altagracia Quintero is our main character; she’s called Grace or Gracie by her friends and family. Grace works on cars for a living — in that way where she’s a rather-sought-out classic car restorer. She loves Fords more than anything, and her abuelo (grandfather) was the one who encouraged her. When he dies, she is under a lot of stress and starts smoking again — which leads to a chain of events that are really, really bizarre. Can she get out of this trap she’s in? And will she ever see John Barnes (with whom she connected utterly in one night) again?

I would just like to warn people that there are most likely spoilers after the cut, as I find it rather impossible to discuss the plot without letting some out. There are often mild spoilers after cuts, but this one’s a little different.

This is a really depressing book. Like, really depressing. The ending is kind of ambiguous, and I didn’t particularly feel like I got any closure on the story. Of course, life is sort of like that — someone dies, and it’s unexpected, and there’s no way that we can ever know what happens to them. Yes — obviously those who believe very strongly in religion believe with absolute certainty that they know what happens, whether it’s the Christian idea of heaven, the Jewish idea of nothingness, Hindu reincarnations, or the seventy-two virgins. However, even so, once in a while, this faith can be questioned. Grace is a lapsed Catholic; her religion is more Ford Motor company, and she has no fixed idea of what is going to happen after death. This is the world into which we are introduced — in other words, it doesn’t matter what the reader particularly thinks is going to happen after death, as we’re in Mr. de Lint and Grace’s world now, and in her world, she doesn’t know, so we don’t know.

Grace’s entrapment is moderately strange and frightening; the people she meets there, however, are generally normal. There’s one guy who’s entirely paranoid and thinks that Grace is a narc, and I thought he was a brief touch of light, even though he was a bleak character in a place of bleakness. No one changes, although they do get a bit progressively weaker, and other than Grace, whom I loved, we had Henry (who couldn’t help but remind me of the character named Henry on Eureka) and Conchita — the latter a punk street kid-type with wisdom beyond her years, of course, but she’s bright and amiable and a good foil to Grace.

All that having been said, though, I did enjoy the story. It’s pure de Lint in so many ways: the small but strong female character; the passion over something that’s just a bit one side of mainstream; the philosophy; the idea that there is something beyond this world that is actually worthy of our faith. In some books it’s the manitou, the little mysteries that figure in many kinds of Native American/Indian/First Nation mythology; in others it’s just the pure idea of grace, or the spirit that animates each of us as a collection, rather than an external omnipotent character. In this book, there’s a little bit more explicit religion (Grace has a tattoo of Saint Altagracia on her shoulder), but he did aim for the non-offensive.

Another reviewer compared it in some ways to Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, a book I absolutely love. It does bear some resemblance, but then again, I just read east Asian folk tales that have the same element of lovers separated except one (or two, in this case) days a year, and the separation by death, so it’s not an entirely unusual trope. Overall, I would recommend this to fans of Mr. de Lint; it’s completely self-contained, and I know we’re never going to see Grace or her friends again, so it can be read with no prior knowledge of Newford and its characters. I’m not absolutely sure it’s the best place to start, as the tone is more melancholy than the average Newford book, but it’s still a thinky book like they are and still an interesting tale. 4.5/5 stars.

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