Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson is set in New York City before the United States has entered World War Two; it seems to be an alternate history in subtle ways. In this world, people of color with mystical/magical talents are known as having “saints’ hands,” which are not necessarily as helpful as one might imagine. The hands or the power that enables them want their possessors to push back against White supremacy, but the humans with powers have difficult decisions to make: how do they fight when the battle seems hopeless? How do they protect the ones they love? How do they save themselves?
Systemic racism is the underlying theme that ties the whole story together. Racism is present both as a constant thrumming background and manifesting in how the characters are treated by those who have power over them. There are overt racist acts, but there’s also the awfulness of bland, ordinary, everyday racism, which continually affects the options available to the characters and the choices they are able to make, explored from a number of angles. It’s ultimately a tragic story for the protagonists, but with a glimmer of hope at the end.
One of the three human point of view characters, light-skinned Phyllis LeBlanc/Pea Green, left her Black family in Harlem to “pass” and use her uncanny accuracy with objects as a knife-wielding assassin for a white mob boss, Victor. She is ostensibly allowed to choose who she kills and does not kill, but she feels trapped in the criminal life after so many murders. She increasingly mourns the growing distance between herself, her remaining family, and her former and future lover, Dev Patil. Dev, the second point of view character, is Hindu and British-Indian who grew up in New York state. Like Pea, Dev walks an ambiguous border between white and not-white that offers him choices but never as many choices as he needs. The third point of view character is Tamara, a Black oracle (who apparently doesn’t have saints’ hands) who fled racist violence and now hides behind Victor’s whiteness and power; she attempts to resist racism through avoidance, and eventually must confront this choice. Finally, there are some scenes from the point of view of the hands/magic itself.
Throughout, the characters face complex decisions with no perfect choices available to them. Throughout, there is nowhere to hide from racist oppression. It’s a lyrically-written, thoughtful, densely layered novel. I’ve only brushed the surface here. I feel it’s best experienced without too many spoilers, so I’ll stop here, but I will say this was, for me, the best and most ambitious of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s novels so far.