The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade

“Is this what motherhood means? Being suddenly able to pity the adults in your life?”

Set over the course of a year in Las Penas, New Mexico, The Five Wounds is a novel about failure and progress. Unsentimental yet moving The Five Wounds details the everyday lives of three members of the Padilla family. There is Angel who is sixteen and pregnant. After her mother (who was also a teen mom) fails her in the worst way imaginable Angel moves in with her deadbeat father (who still lives with his mother). Amadeo is thirty-three, self-involved, jobless, and expects his mother to look after him. Yolanda, in her fifties, who has always been the family’s ‘rock’ has little time for either of them after receiving an end-of-life diagnosis.
The narrative focuses in particular on Angel and Amadeo. Angel is attending a special program for teen moms and hopes that she will be able to carry on her studies while also looking after her son. Yet, the adults around, even her loving grandmother, seems to be too occupied to offer her any real support. Her mother tries to make amends but Angel is unable to forgive her. She becomes close with Lizette, another girl from the group, who is in an even more disadvantageous position than Angel herself.
Amadeo spends most of his days blaming others for his less than stellar life. He drinks too much, does very little for other people, and acts like a child around his sister who is one of the few people who calls him out on his shitty behaviour. Amadeo is indeed proves himself time and again to be a bit of shit. He often calls women bitches, he’s blind to his mother’s failing health, and takes pleasure in knowing that if he wants he could get his sister off his back by appearing intimidating (and he knows that she was in an abusive relationship). In many ways, he was a Frank Gallagher sort of figure. We do see that he does try now and again to be there for his daughter, but as soon as things don’t go his ways he defaults to blaming others for his own failures and shortcomings. He feels some sense of purpose when he plays Jesus in the Good Friday procession but it does not last as it seems to briefly give him a conflated sense of himself (he habitually compares himself to Jesus, sometimes hilariously so: “Amadeo imagines windshield repair is a trade Jesus might get behind. It is, essentially, carpentry for the twenty-first century).

I appreciated that Angel is not made into a caricature of a teenager (even if the author makes the point of making all teen girls in this novel unable of applying makeup: their faces are caked with foundation, their lashes clumpy with mascara…). She clearly wants someone she can look up to, and she briefly thinks that Brianna, who is in charge at that teenage mother’s group, but more often than not she’s left disappointed. Even Lizette proves to be less than dependable and it was saddening to see how few people are there for Angel.

The author’s style is very matter-of-fact but also capable of piercing observations or touching exchanges. The tragicomic tone succeeds in making occasional fun of the characters, Amadeo in particular, without belittling them and allowing us to sympathise with them and their efforts to be better or improve their circumstances. Some may not like that the story leaves quite a few storylines unresolved but I thought that it fitted with the novel’s realistic and dry storytelling. What lessened my reading experience was the way Yolanda was pushed on the outskirts of the narrative so that her presence in the story seems minimal. While I understand that the story was making a point, showing us how self-involved Amadeo and Angel are not to notice that Yolanda is also going through a difficult time, we could have had more chapters following Yolanda perspective. Instead, we get unnecessary passages centric on Brianna, one of the novel’s least believable and interesting character. Lizette’s portrayal too was a bit wanting (in particularly her self-harming) and I could have done without the adults drinking breastmilk scene (if I had a nickel for every time I came across this sort of scene in a book, I’d have two nickels, which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice).
Part of me also wishes that we could have had less homophobia (“He’s not gay. That’s gross”) or that at least the narrative could have challenged some of those comments. I get that it was ‘realistic’ but the story just seems to confirm that there can be no happy (or at least functional) queer couple.

Overall this was a realistic portrayal of a less-than-perfect family. The characters are flawed, they say and or do offensive/unlikable things, their circumstances are less-than-ideal, their relationships with each other can be frustrating and messy. The author succeeds in not only depicting the day-to-day lives of the Padillas but she also captures, for better or worse, their community in Las Penas. The novel’s religious undertones did not feel distracting nor did they take away from the narrative’s factual style. There was something about this novel that really brought to mind Showtime’s Shameless so if you a fan of that show you might want to give The Five Wounds a try.

my rating: ★★★½

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