Alana Cash’s self-published novel Saints in the Shadows (2014) follows Maud, a 24-year-old woman living in New York City. Maud is from New Orleans, but left when life didn’t make sense after the death of her father. Once Maud feels confident in her job as a waitress at a ludicrously expensive restaurant, she gets her own apartment, which is where she meets her eccentric neighbor from Hungary, Lina, who works as a psychic using the pseudonym Madam Budska. Lina decides that Maud shows talent for reading people, and that’s all being a psychic is: just listening and looking. When Lina goes away for a week for “the big reveal,” she convinces Maud to meet with her clients in her absence.
There is not a single boring character in Saints in the Shadows, even the minor ones. Dilly Bones, the first person to whom Maud makes love, may only exist in one chapter, but I could hear him and understand his actions. Maud’s mother lives in Montana, but even on the phone her character comes to life on the page. She can tell which boyfriend is bad for Maud, and she knows that when a date winks at Maud, he’s the keeper.
Lina and Maud, the main characters, are people you’d want to know. Alana Cash describes them just often enough so that my mind doesn’t let an image of me take over (if I don’t know what a character looks like, I assume she looks like me). But it’s mostly Lina’s and Maud’s conversations that are unforgettable. What Maud finds ethically objectionable, Lina sees as normal:
“How much is too much money, Maud?”
“Enough to buy people or manipulate them,” Maud said.
Lina smiled and said, “What do you think? Someone hates their job, but goes to work every day because they get paycheck, are they bought? Sure, they are bought, and they are first ones to point finger at Persephone [a woman who regularly visits Madam Budska and mistress to a wealthy man] and call her whore. Saying someone has too much money is just envy. Too much money is just more than you have. You think people making one hundred thousand by year doesn’t think about having more money? Or someone makes forty thousand by year isn’t concerned with money? And what for? They have roof over the head. They have enough to eat. They have work. Then what they need?”
Lina’s argument continues, explaining to Maud that greed is all about perception, and that those who call others greedy would probably trade places with the “greedy” person in a heartbeat to have a better life. Throughout the novel, Lina acts as a sort of guide who doesn’t give anyone–including her clients when she’s Madam Budska–answers.
Some of the characters appear and disappear, like magic moments inserted into the narrative. Take this moment when Maud sits to think to a public square:
One Sunday night in late January, Maud was alone in the Square. It was 22 degrees and beginning to snow. A black man hustled past her carrying a pair of drum sticks.
He called out, “Hey, baby, whatcha doin’ out here? It’s cold!”
She smiled. He reminded her of Dilly Bones.
“It’s not so bad,” she replied.
“Then you must be from Alaska,” he called from the corner and rushed on.
Alana Cash captures these small moments with ease, and uses them to her advantage. This brief scene is what leads Maud to the chapter in which her relationship with Dilly Bones–and his connection to her deceased father–is described. It all ties together, but begins with a moment.
The plot is one that kept me guessing and then assuming I shouldn’t guess, a tangible tug-of-war during which the author wants me to believe and then not. Lina claims that when she is Madam Budska, it’s all about reading body language and listening–that’s it. Also, she doesn’t charge people for her sessions. They give her what they think she is worth: thousands of dollars, gifts to high-end stores, expensive dishes or furniture, etc. In fact, Lina is a trained physicist, not a crystal ball kind of psychic. She uses dominoes as a prop because it’s what clients expect, but the dominoes don’t mean anything to her. Maud protests that Lina is tricking people as Madam Budska, but then something happens in the story to make me think the characters really are psychic. After Maud meets with “Client Waldorf” while Lina is away for “the big reveal,” she has a dream about him. Upon waking up, she calls Lina and tells her about the dream. Lina says, “It’s nothing. You pay attention to him. So, then your subconscious mind learns things that come out in a dream.” Okay, so here I am thinking Lina’s taking about dreams being our brain’s way of sorting through things we’re thinking about.
But then she says, “You feel something in the dream? Something pulling, like rope or string?” Maud had seen a ribbon in the dream, but doesn’t admit to it. Lina says, “If you see a string or ribbon, something like that, do not touch it. Otherwise, it can pull you along.” So, now I’m thinking Lina is a real psychic! The tension in the book goes back and forth like this: chilling moments that can’t be natural and then moments explained away by careful observation. As Maud meets more clients during the week, more dreams come, but Lina is always on the phone to discuss what they mean and question Maud, who is quick to judge people, if she feels differently when she knows more about the lives of these strangers.
One last thing I enjoyed about Saints in the Shadows was the dry humor Alana Cash adds. Lina’s “big reveal” trip takes her to Los Angeles, California. The wealth there is totally different from in NYC, which she explains it to Maud:
“I take a walk in the neighborhood yesterday. Some neighbor lose a little dog and posts flyer on telephone pole offering reward of ten thousand dollars for anyone finding this dog.”
“Really? Or is that a joke.”
“Is true. Someone loves the dog,” Lina said.
A few days later, Maud calls Lina and discovers that Lina is getting paid more to do psychic readings in Los Angeles than she was in NYC. Lina explains, “In California, I am worth the same as lost dog.” Here, the humor stems from Lina not saying the dollar amount she is paid, and from the fact that clients choose Lina’s price, which is the same as a dog.
The only puzzling bits were the title and cover. Saints are mentioned at one point, but they don’t seem to play a role in the rest of the story, and the cover makes the novel appear religious in nature, which it is not. Overall, I highly recommend Saints in the Shadows for it’s smooth organization, memorable characters, and its ability to make me a believer/non-believer. I really enjoyed this read!
I want to thank Alana Cash for sending me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. I do not know the author personally nor professionally. Be sure to check out Alana’s Meet the Writer feature to learn more about her writing process and thoughts on Madam Budska!