Dec 212023
New York Times: The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera is the best book I’ve read all year. Protean, singular, original, it forces me to come up with the most baffling comparisons, like: What if “Disco Elysium” were written by Sofia Samatar? At the same time, all you need to know about it is contained in its opening:
“The moment Fetter is born, Mother-of-Glory pins his shadow to the earth with a large brass nail and tears it from him. This is his first memory, the seed of many hours of therapy to come.”
Fetter is one of several almost-chosen-ones (they have a support group) who are raised in the expectation of a spectacular and violent destiny, but shirk or sidestep it in favor of a haunted and marginal life in the city of Luriat. All is mundane in Luriat except its “bright doors,” which “give the city its historic identity without intruding on its daily life.” These doors seem to open onto nothing, but from their keyholes emerge whispers, a cold breeze and a sense of the otherworldly. Fetter’s fascination with these doors draws him into a web of Luriati intrigue that involves his estranged and godlike father, The Perfect and Kind — whom Fetter has been trained since childhood to kill.
I can’t remember the last time a book made me so excited about its existence, its casual challenge to what a fantasy novel could be. In its slipperiness, its combination of antique registers (“megrims” for migraines, “haecceity strings” for bar codes) with contemporary digital life, it manages to pinpoint the peculiar insanity of our modernity. Atrocity is both all-obliterating and seasonal here, able to be mapped onto a calendar; childhood is a site of trauma and self-fashioning, to be both escaped and fulfilled. This novel is so intelligent and compassionate, so furious and so calm.
As a critic I often attempt to turn myself into a book’s ideal reader in order to do it justice. It’s bewildering to encounter a book for which I am, in fact, already the ideal reader, a book that gives me everything I didn’t know I needed, that makes me feel both the pinwheeling fall from climbing a step that isn’t there, and the relief of being caught before I hit the ground.