Unless you’ve been waiting with breathless anticipation to read a book by an author with whose work you’re familiar, and which you therefore have high hopes of enjoying, the unspoken thought in any reviewer’s mind when starting to read a new book must inevitably be: “Oh please, please, please let it be good!”
Well, with Julia Robb’s Saint of the Burning Heart, I needn’t have worried.
For a start, the reader is in very safe hands. Julia Robb has a background in journalism – “I spent 20 years in the newspaper business”, as it states on her Amazon page – and it shows. She knows what she’s doing.
Not every journalist can write a compelling story, though. In addition to the craft of turning a neat phrase and getting the information down on the page, there’s also the art of spinning a yarn that keeps the reader intrigued, engaged, enthused and entralled. With Saint of the Burning Heart, Julia Robb proves that she has mastered more than just the craft of writing: she also possesses the art.
Published as an ebook in February 2013, Saint of the Burning Heart swings between steamy melodrama and modern-day tragedy. Well, almost modern-day: the novel is set mostly in the 1960s, in a part of Texas, within easy reach of the Mexican border. Like much in the novel, the information that the story is not exactly contemporary isn’t spoon fed to the reader: it emerges.
In the manner of a natural dramatist, the author here plays a sort of hide-and-seek with the audience; there’s a slightly teasing quality to the narrative, a sense that – rather than piling on the exposition – the author prefers to let the story unfold in its own way, popping questions into the reader’s head and then resolving them when the time is right, which is how a good thriller works. It’s indicative of confidence and a sure hand. From the opening moments, the reader is caught up in the author’s spell. There are no unnecessary explanations: only crisp, incisive descriptions, plenty of authentic-sounding dialogue, memorable scenes and images, strong, volatile characters and an all-pervading sense of emotional and social conflict, of passions and prejudices, of individuals, families and a whole community on the brink of self-destruction.
Central to the story is the orphaned Nicki. Raised by a foster-family – which is itself an uneasy mix of “Anglo” and “mescan” blood – she develops an erotic fixation on her rescuer and father-figure. Obliged by scandal to leave home, she returns to discover that her smalltown community is riven with racial and political tensions. The whites have had it all their own way, but now the Hispanics are running for office and anxious to overturn years of oppression. Nicki is caught between the rival camps and rival lovers.
The setting is vividly presented and peopled by believeable characters, all-too human, flesh-and-blood, driven by their own demons and desires. They speak in their own patois, the emphasis on dialogue over description lending the story an added drama. The book plays out like a movie in the reader’s mind – it has all the sweaty intensity and immediacy, the visual realism and the fatalism of a certain kind of American cinema (I was also reminded of Steinbeck, and especially Of Mice and Men, which uses dialogue to similar effect).
There are many standout moments – including a minor orgy of depravity and self-loathing in which the priest Daniel (the “saint” of the title, I believe) indulges across the border in Mexico – and plenty of characters who stick in the mind, so vividly are they presented; they seem so real, you can almost smell them. Most of the major characters are introduced in their turn, flaws and all, with the narrative breaking away to discover and follow them, before the author skilfully draws all the strands together. The tension increases, and the pace seems to quicken, until we’re heading for the final showdown. And even then, right up till the end, Julia Robb plays with our expectations. We know it will end badly – but quite how, we can’t tell. We must trust to the storyteller, and by that point in the story we have little choice: she has entertained and intrigued us, puzzled and enlightened us, and we are at her mercy. Fortunately, she delivers.
It should be clear by now that I was somewhat in awe of this story and its author. I am happy to recommend it, and cannot do so highly enough. The writing is exciting and excellent, and the story merges the domestic with the historic, the personal and the political, so deftly, and to such an extent, that the whole remains with you long after you have turned the final page.
Julia Robb is also the author of Scalp Mountain, which, if her Saint of the Burning Heart is anything to go by, promises to be as gritty and gripping as anything the avid reader of historical fiction could hope for.