Grace is blessed with multiple meanings in Charles de Lint’s 2009 urban fantasy novel, The Mystery of Grace. She is an idea and also a woman. This strong beautiful tattooed deva is at once kind, charming, thoughtful, and at ease around a classic car. (She grew up rebuilding hotrods with her Abuelo and works wonders at Sanchez Motors). She loves rockabilly and surf guitar. She is virtuous in her own way and both gives and receives divine assistance. She is also dead and therefore, seeking grace early in the story.
In this 2010 interview with Charles de Lint, the author says that the book is about appreciating the moment, not waiting and missing opportunities. For life is short. You never know when you will vanish from this world and reappear in another unknown place. I agree with the author, but I also found this book to be about Faith (with a capital F). And Fear. The fear of what happens after we die permeates this book and it is only through Faith that the characters can stop waiting and walk through the mist into the unknown. Grace Quintero wears her life tattooed on her body. On her shoulder is Grace’s namesake, Our Lady of Altagracia. It is her faith in love and los santos that sees her through the limbo state (about two years in human time). But how does she end up there?
This story is set in the American Southwest. Ironically, Grace goes to buy cigarettes at Luna’s and gets shot twice in the chest by a junkie. “It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in,” my mother, Grace, used to quip. Grace Quintero dies and wakes up in a parallel world. Her apartment at the Alverson Arms, in the small desert town of Santo del Vado Viejo still exists, but she is imprisoned with several other lost souls within a two-three block radius. Some have been there for decades as this limbo world seems to have been created in August 1965, and everyone who dies in proximity to the Alverson Arms lands here.
After making friends with the locals, Grace learns the rules. They don’t need to eat or sleep, but they can. Some end up comatose (sleepers). Henry, who lives at the Solina Library says: “if you don’t keep yourself busy, it all goes away. First your memories, then the desire to do anything, finally whatever it is that makes you who you are” (65). Going into the misty boundaries at the edges of the Alverson world also affects memories, and going back to the real world can be traumatic. Yes. Grace can go back to her home, but only twice a year, on Samhain and Beltane. And no one will recognize her.
On her first visit home, Grace meets artist John Burns and it’s love at first sight. They spend the night together but at dawn, she disappears, leaving John lonely and confused. Their relationship is only a flutter of what this book is about, so I won’t call it paranormal romance (though John is human and Grace a ghost.) This book, like all de Lint’s books, runs deep, crosses genres, and defies labels.
Norm, a distant cousin of shaman Ramon Morago, is the only one who can see Grace when she returns twice a year and he keeps telling her to “find her path.” Norm is Kikimi, and a kind of funky spiritual advisor to the lost girl caught in limbo. Morago and the Kikimi people are the subject of de Lint’s latest novel, The Wind in his Heart—my review here). Norm sees dead people and must use prayers and sacred smudge (sage) to keep the spirits at bay. Once they know you can see them, they keep harassing you. They’re lonely and want to talk. A shaman can choose but Norm doesn’t have a filter. He must pretend not to see them; otherwise, they drive him to drink.
What happens when we die? Will we be reunited with our ancestors? With those we love? Do heaven and hell exist? Or do we go into a kind of limbo to await our next incarnation? The Mystery of Grace inspires us to question our belief in God and the afterlife.
As always, de Lint, weaves a sensual tapestry of landscape, music, love, and culture. I am dazzled by his creativity, his brilliance, and his daring. Into this story, de Lint pours the tale of Juan—Juan can capture a bruja (witch) and turn her magic back on her “because the priest Juan Diego was the first to see Our Lady of Guadalupe” (197). Why does Grace needs to know about Juan? That is a question best left unanswered.
I leave you with a quote by Alice Hoffman.
Charles de Lint is the modern master of urban fantasy. Folktale, myth, fairy tale, dreams, urban legend—all of it adds up to pure magic in de Lint’s vivid, original world.