“The Patron Saint of Ugly” by Marie Manilla – weird but definately wonderful

The Patron Saint of UglyI bought this book for all the wrong reasons: it was on offer, I liked the title and I loved the cover.

Two chapters in, I was so taken aback by the style and the content that I thought,  “Damn, I knew those were stupid reasons to buy a book” and almost stopped reading.

Then I examined my own reaction and realized that I was in a kind of reader’s shock. The problem with reading something original and different is that the WTF reaction can produce complete disorientation. My imagination struggled for traction, not because the writing was difficult or obscure, but because the style and the content of the story were so different from what I’d expected. I was having difficulty figuring out what I was supposed to do with the book.

The answer, of course, was open up my imagination, relax my preconceptions, and listen to what the author had to say.

A third of the way through the book, I was in love: with the characters, with idea of a story told as a series of first person accounts on tape to a third-party, with the deft skill Marie Manilla showed in moving back and forth along the timeline in a way that enhanced my enjoyment and deepened my understanding and with the constant dance between magic and reality, belief and logic, love and hate, fate and choice, that was presented in a series of bravura performances, ranging in intensity from a broadway musical, through classical ballet to a passionate flamenco.

This book made me think, made me cry and made me hope. Two thirds of the way through, I wanted it to go on forever. I wanted to wrap myself up in this world and never leave.

Sadly, I found the ending week and disjointed. I got nothing at all from the last chapter, which, although it bookended the first chapter, seemed so disconnected from the action of the novel that I became irritated with it.

There are things about the book that people may find challenging: the plot and the narrative style walk a tightrope between the reality and myth, making it hard to know what I was meant to believe or not believe; forcing me make and re-make my own decisions on the truth of the tale. The language in the book is casually (but deliberately) offensive to modern-day ears (Poor Italians in America who live on DagoWop Hill – insult, humour, honesty, all of the above?). The attitude towards the Catholic Church, the clergy and the nature of miracles is antagonistic to the point of insult. Men are depicted, for the most part, as nasty, brutish and short-lived. The rich are shown as selfish, vain, and vicious. The poor are shown as superstious and ignorant.

What lifts the book above a rant or a semi-mystical piece of nonsense, is that it is powered by a deep understanding of the need for love: the love between father and daughter; mother and daughter, husband and wife. It shows families in different configurations and holds them to a single test of worth: do you love each other?

This book is bold and innovative and ambitious so it is inevitable that there were points were I found myself momentarily pitched out of the story when my ability to believe had been stretched too far, but the book as a whole is a joy I’m glad I didn’t miss.

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