Only a couple of weeks ago I was perusing NetGalley when I saw a new book that wasn’t yet available: Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. It immediately captured my interest, so I indicated my hope that it would be made available soon. Shortly after, I was surprised and elated when NetGalley had not only put the book up, they’d even let me have an ARC of it right on the spot. Wow! So as soon as I finished up what I was reading, I dove right in.
|Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine|
|Genre||Historical Fiction; Literary Fiction|
|Setting||Colorado, United States|
|Number of Pages||336|
|Format I Read||eBook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||June 7, 2022|
A dazzling epic of betrayal, love, and fate that spans five generations of an Indigenous Chicano family in the American West, from the author of the National Book Award Finalist Sabrina & Corina
“There is one every generation–a seer who keeps the stories.”
Luz “Little Light” Lopez, a tea leaf reader and laundress, is left to fend for herself after her older brother, Diego, a snake charmer and factory worker, is run out of town by a violent white mob. As Luz navigates 1930’s Denver on her own, she begins to have visions that transport her to her Indigenous homeland in the nearby Lost Territory. Luz recollects her ancestors’ origins, how her family flourished and how they were threatened. She bears witness to the sinister forces that have devastated her people and their homelands for generations. In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family stories from disappearing into oblivion.
Written in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s singular voice, the wildly entertaining and complex lives of the Lopez family fill the pages of this multigenerational western saga. Woman of Light is a transfixing novel about survival, family secrets, and love, filled with an unforgettable cast of characters, all of whom are just as special, memorable, and complicated as our beloved heroine, Luz.
Special thanks to NetGalley and One World/Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Woman of Light is an immersive, multigenerational story about an Indigenous Chicano family, primarily spanning the early 1890s through the early 1930s. The main story, in 1933 and 1934, focuses on Luz Lopez. Living in Denver with her aunt and older brother, she’s already been working for years despite being only 17 years old. Between reading tea leaves and working as a laundress, she does what she can to keep her small family afloat. Her brother, Diego, is a snake charmer in addition to his day job. One day, Diego has a tragic run-in with some violent people, and he’s forced to leave town. Without his income, Luz looks for better work and ends up getting a secretarial position at a law firm started by a longtime family friend.
Interspersed between her chapters, we also get glimpses of the lives of her ancestors. In the late 1800s, in the Lost Territory (the southwestern areas of the United States that was previously part of Mexico), we get to know Luz’s grandparents, Pidre and Simodecea. Later, we also get a look at her parents’ generation, including her mom Sara and her aunt Maria Josefina.
While reading it, even once I’d read a significant percentage of it, I found it hard to explain the plot of Woman of Light. There isn’t a strong end goal for our characters. In some ways, it feels more like a slice of life, following Luz as she comes of age. Her story arc revolves around figuring out who she is, what she wants in life, and what her ambitions are. Part of this comes in the form of her new job as a secretary. Another part focuses on her romantic relationships, including her first boyfriend and the older guy she once had a crush on. There’s a bit of a love triangle there, and Luz makes some questionable choices. What will she learn or gain from these romances?
A major theme within Woman of Light is the racism Luz and her family face on a daily basis. They’re Indigenous and Chicano, and both their physical appearance and their Spanish language put them at the receiving end of bigotry and racism. It can be seen in Luz’s limited job opportunities, her being barred from even applying for roles in the more affluent, white neighborhoods. It’s obvious in the mob of racist men who attack Diego and cause him to flee town. And now that Luz is working in law, it’s woefully present in the lack of justice people of color see when a racist cop kills a man and gets away with it. In this book, we see the harsh realities of racism and hatred. We see the KKK marching through the Denver streets and feel the fear our characters feel. It’s hard to see it so overtly here, but although we’ve made progress in the past century, racism is still all too prevalent today.
These are also working class characters, living paycheck to paycheck and lacking savings when emergencies arise. Luz and her family had to drop out of school early on so they could work. Their limited educations – coupled with the racist barriers in place – make it difficult for any upward mobility. It’s by luck and being owed a good deed that Luz forges a better opportunity, with increased pay and even a chance at some further education. Though my own life situation wasn’t nearly so dire, I was poor growing up, and I always like reading about working class characters and identify with them much more than middle or upper class ones. Here they take center stage, offering an intimate glimpse of what life is like when you’re poor and marginalized.
But Woman of Light also depicts joy and love, too. Luz’s cousin Lizette is about the same age, but she’s at a completely different place in terms of love. Over the course of this novel, Lizette dreams about marrying her boyfriend Alfonso, and although money is tight for them all, she works hard to finally be able to afford a wedding. Maybe Luz isn’t quite there yet, but there is hope for her yet. Perhaps there is hope for Diego, too.
Woman of Light is a beautifully written novel, filled with immersive descriptions of the landscapes and cities and earnest portrayals of resilient characters. A note at the beginning of the novel described the author’s writing as vivid and movie-like, and I would have to agree. You can see the images in bright color as you move through the chapters, making the read that much more impactful.
Even if I find it difficult to describe Woman of Light in only a sentence or two, I still found it to be an engrossing and delightful read. This is Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s first novel, though she previously published a short story collection, Sabrina & Corina. I plan to read that soon, and will eagerly await her next publication. For now, mark June 7th on your calendars, because Woman of Light is a novel you’ll want to read once it’s out later this year.
About the Author
Kali Fajardo-Anstine is from Denver, Colorado. The author of Sabrina & Corina, a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, The Clark Prize, The Story Prize, the Saroyan International Prize, and winner of an American Book Award, she is the 2021 recipient of the Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been honored with the Denver Mayor’s Award for Global Impact in the Arts and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Award. She has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, O: the Oprah Magazine, The American Scholar, Boston Review, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and Tin House. Fajardo-Anstine earned her MFA from the University of Wyoming and has lived across the country, from Durango, Colorado, to Key West, Florida. She is the 2022/23 Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at Texas State University. Her debut novel, Woman of Light, will be published in June, 2022.