Anapra is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the Mexican city of Juarez – twenty metres outside town lies a fence – and beyond it – America – the dangerous goal of many a migrant. Faustino is one such trying to escape from the gang he’s been working for. He’s dipped into a pile of dollars he was supposed to be hiding and now he’s on the run. He and his friend, Arturo, have only 36 hours to replace the missing money, or they’re as good as dead. Watching over them is Saint Death. Saint Death (or Santissima Muerte) – she of pure bone and charcoal-black eye, she of absolute loyalty and neutral morality, holy patron to rich and poor, to prostitute and narco-lord, criminal and police-chief. A folk saint, a rebel angel, a sinister guardian. (Goodreads)
The book begins with protagonist Arturo witnessing one of his neighbours be taken away from his home by a local gang, with everyone knowing full well that he won’t be coming back. Arturo stares one of the gang members straight in the face and feels as though his card has been marked, with the tattooed man seeming to point at him and mouthing something he can’t make out. Despite this, Arturo goes back to his daily business and tries to keep his head down, doing his best to forget the man and what it might mean.
Of course, this event foreshadows another, and Arturo soon finds his childhood friend Faustino on his doorstep in a state of panic. He is erratic and insists that Arturo needs to help him, pulling up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a local gang and also taking out the gun they have given him. Arturo is shocked that his friend has been so stupid as to stoop to that level, but he was tempted by the good money and wanted to provide the best for his pregnant girlfriend, Eva. In a town with no prospects Arturo understands the temptation, but Faustino has gone a step too far and owes the gang a thousand dollars by tomorrow.
He took the money to buy Eva safe passage over the border to America, and now needs Arturo’s help to get the money back, asking him to count cards at a game that night. Arturo has never played for dollars before, preferring to stick to smaller games with less risk. However, he wants to help his friend and is given renewed confidence when they visit a shrine to Santa Muerte, feeling as though she is watching over him and putting good fortune his way. Of course, when playing cards the house always wins, and Arturo finds himself in more danger than he could have imagined.
I thought that this book of Sedgwick’s carefully toed the line between adult and young adult, as it addresses some strong political and social themes and the violence that follows. The characters barely seem to have left adolescence, and feel more like they are playing at being adults, having never had any guidance to help them with the transition. Instead, those like Faustino rely on praying to saints, whilst others like Arturo disregard prayer and try to make their own luck.
As a protagonist, Arturo was always slightly distant from the reader and I got the impression that he was holding something back, not wishing to ruin our view of him innocently helping his friend. He might not believe in Santa Muerte at first, but he soon comes to think he sees her everywhere and that she is watching his story unfold with great interest. I admired his willingness to help his friend, despite knowing how dangerous the gangs can be and what could happen to him if they find out the truth. He must not be seen to know Faustino, leaving him on his own to face his fate without any support. He is at his own mercy and it is easy to understand how both he and Faustino might be tempted to make the wrong choice.
We didn’t get to see as much of Faustino, but from what we do see it is clear that he embodies the stereotype of making a bad decision for the greater good. All he wants is to protect Eva and the baby, not saying no to the luxury benefits that the gang life has thrown his way. He has been swept away by his own choices, and is now paying the price for his own greed. Even though it was for the right reasons, there is still part of Faustino that expects Arturo to help, knowing that he can’t really say no when there is a mother and child involved. However, his panic is very real and gives an insight into what their community faces each day, with fear being rife among the population.
Overall I enjoyed this book as it was different to anything I’d read before and opens your eyes to what situations are like in other countries. I have always enjoyed Sedgwick’s writing style, but did feel that the characters could have used a little more development in this instance, as I never really felt like I knew Arturo or Faustino, with both remaining somewhat faceless. It’s almost as if we watch them from a distance, without feeling like part of the community, which only serves to emphasise the divide between us and them. I think this represents the point Sedgwick is trying to make, that we don’t really understand this other culture, but that his novel is trying hard to close that gap.
A novel that is very much different from other young adult books, Sedgwick aims to shed light on gang situations and how easy it is to fall into that darker culture. He also plays with the concept of inevitability and whether the saints really do play a part in our lives, introducing characters who both believe they are acting with the greater good in mind but falling foul of circumstance. I thought this book offered an approach on social commentary and encourages you to consider the lives of those you might not have thought about before.