ALC · ARC · Historical Fiction

Woman of Light

A year or two ago, I read Fajardo-Anstine’s story collection, Sabrina & Corina, which was a favorite of mine that year. I loved the grittiness and the homage to land/ancestors and the feminism all mixed together to great impact. Needless to say, I was excited to hear that she was coming out with a full-length novel, and even more excited to receive an ARC from Netgalley (and then, an ALC from!).

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Woman of Light follows five generations of the Lopez family, over the years as the land they live on transitions from The Lost Territory to present-day (or, an early twentieth century version of) Denver. Everything focuses around Luz (the titular woman of “light”), a tea leaf reader and seer, in the 1930s. She lives with her aunt, Maria Josie, brother, Diego, and is best friends with her cousin, Lizette. Over the course of a few years, we watch as her brother must leave town for his own safety, Lizette plans her wedding (and wedding dress!), Maria Josie settles into her life (and love), and Luz struggles with both her feelings (the “safe and comfortable” Avel or her boss, a young attorney – and womanizer – David) and what she wants for her life. This family drama all unfolds against the backdrop of racial unrest and police brutality, told in turn with the stories of the past (the lives of Luz’s parents and grandparents), that brought the Lopez family to where they are today. 

Y’all, I badly wanted to love this book more than I did. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. It had so much promise, and so many of the themes were in line with those that I loved from Sabrina & Corina, but there was just something missing, or just a bit off, here for me. A lot of it came down to the writing. It was fine, good even, in an overall sense. But the issue for me was that this was marketed as an adult book and it just read *so young.* I mean the themes were incredibly mature. The main characters were 18 (plus or minus) and (especially for the time period) were definitely considered adults and lived adult lives/responsibilities. And yet, for all that, this book reads *so* young, and not just like YA young, but like…naive, young. The sweetness and innocence to Luz started fine, but as things began to happen in her life, and she “saw” more and more of her family’s history, the fact that it stuck around felt somewhat incongruous. It was an interesting narrative juxtaposition, the presentation of such intense, serious topics (CW: racism/slurs, animal cruelty, colonialism, hate crimes, police violence, misogyny, and more) in such an innocent voice. It was kind of like a tall tale or western themed fable: there’s a message about society, but it’s passed on within a sort of fantasy/fairytale-like narrative. And I can see what it was going for, I think. But it never really landed for me.

Also, and perhaps this is because I have recently read some other truly phenomenal, and much longer, family saga type novels (The Arsonists’ City and The Love Songs of W.E.B. du Bois, for example), even the intergenerational family story and drama seemed…too surface-level and a bit too simple. So it could easily just be a situation of bad timing and/or not the right reader, but this one just didn’t quite hit the spot. 

I do want to recognize a few things that were really well done and/or that I respected, even if this wasn’t a new favorite read. I enjoyed the highlighting of a time/place combination that I do not know much about, from an intersectional perspective. The predominant “wild west” and “depression era” narratives (along with most everything in our nation) are white and cis-hetero. This was a fantastic highlighting of the sheer variety of peoples that make up this nation/land, obviously focused on Indigenous and Chicano families here, but with inclusion of other races and nationalities (Asian, recent European immigrants) and how they intermingled (or didn’t, as it were).

Fajardo-Anstine does a wonderful job, too, of showing how the intolerance of our nation was universal and widespread; the Klan was not just a Southern thing and police violence (and upholding of the legacy of white supremacy) has been endemic against all minority populations since…well, since the arrival of white people on the continent. As has the fight for real justice. I enjoyed seeing some recognizable aspects (like, did I correctly interpret the reference to the “start” of Red Rocks as we know it, as a performance venue, today?). And, there were some vibes similar to When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky that were also really interesting, like looking at these less-well-known parts of history (a similar time period, though very different parts of the country) and some really unique show-boat type jobs (in this case, snake charming and tea reading and sharpshooting). Last, is it just me, or were there some aro coding/vibes around Luz? Whether or not it was purposeful, that’s how I chose to read her, and I liked it. 

I’m not sure how to wrap up my thoughts about this novel. It was fascinating, as far as exposure, for me as a reader. I was interested in it, for the most part; the characters were original, the plot was well-paced, the themes were compelling and the emotions were correctly placed (remembrance, anger, hope, heartbreak, contentment, etc.). The sense of place and time was spectacular. Plus, the ending was…*chef’s kiss*…as far as looking towards a brighter future while still shining a light on the past/ancestors. To that end, the title was also spot on with its meaning and named-based wordplay. And yet, it felt sort of under-developed in the way it was all brought together. Or told in the wrong voice. Or none of that and it just wasn’t the right fit for me. Who knows.  

A few pull-quotes:

“Pidre came from a storytelling people, but […] he couldn’t help but think that Anglos were perhaps the most dangerous storytellers of all – for they believed only their own words, and they allowed their stories to trample the truths of nearly every other man on Earth.”

“When an officer decides to murder a member of the community, it is not one life snuffed out. It is a web of consequences – on killing damages a thousand lives.”

“The fact that the protection she craved from men was mostly to ward off incidents with other men frightened her.”

2 thoughts on “Woman of Light

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