The debut collection of stories from Kirstin Valdez Quade tackles family ties and fissures across New Mexico, plunging us into the fierce, troubled hearts of characters defined by the desire to escape the past—or to plumb its depths. Winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize.
There is nothing undercutting to say about this book, which caused me to weep so many times I failed to finish most of its stories in a single sitting. The collection reminds us, again and again, that each of us has only one life, and forces us to confront the biggest questions: Shouldn’t that one life matter, shouldn’t that life be worth remembering, shouldn’t it be worth examining, contemplating, pursuing in understanding, even though all varieties of understanding are so difficult, so time-bound, so provisional? ... This is a variety of beauty too rare in contemporary literature, a synthesis of material and practice and time and courage and love that must have cost its writer dearly; it’s not easy to be so vulnerable so consistently. Quade attempts, page by page, to give up carefully held secrets, to hold them up to the light so we can get at the truth beneath, the existential truth.
In these stories, Valdez Quade’s characters find themselves either lost or saved, and the links connecting them to loved ones surface, rusted but strong ... Characters push and pull at those chains, struggling with loyalty, rage, and guilt ... Young women, as abandoned daughters or early mothers, serve as Valdez Quade’s principal narrators, and she keenly illustrates her protagonists’ alienation ... At times, Valdez Quade’s reliance on symbolism can overreach. This is a noticeable limitation for a collection that again and again seeks to explore the same familial ills—alcoholism, physical abuse, and divorce—through imagery ... These are sobering stories, but Valdez Quade, thankfully, isn’t above poking some fun at her characters.
At its best, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s new collection of stories, Night at the Fiestas, sidesteps cliché but keeps the grandeur of her setting by transposing it to her characters—people big as myth, opaque as Scripture ... When Quade writes about the down and out, she sometimes sounds a sour note of revelry in the squalor of her characters’ lives ... As Valdez Quade’s characters stray from the outlines of her own family’s history and slide further down the socioeconomic ladder, the more threadbare they tend to become ... On the other hand, it’s fair to note that, irrespective of its target, sourness is to some extent just part of Valdez Quade’s narrative outlook ... Night at the Fiestas is most powerful precisely when it resists bold strokes and symbols—when it lets the past remain unfixable and the motions of the human heart stay murky. In the shadows, Valdez Quade does some interesting things.