The premise of this story makes it sound like it’s going to be a dark, intense read—and that’s right on the money. Two main characters: Saint doesn’t know who or what he is, only that he’s immortal and has been repeating the same experience for two hundred years, where he meets a talented artist and falls into a passionate relationship with him, and the artist is inspired to creativity while withering away and dying, and Saint is charged with life—if Saint stayed away from artists he might die, perhaps, but he can’t bring himself to. And Grey Jean-Marcelin is a the brilliant Haitian-American painter who used to paint pictures based in his strong vodun faith, but who has been worn away by many years of crushing depression until he’s absolutely determined to die. Saint has finally found someone he can tell the truth to, and enter into a willing bargain with, but this would be the first time he wouldn’t be fighting against his nature the whole time, so does that make him a monster? Grey doesn’t want to make this relationship a mere bargain, he wants to know the real Saint, at the cost of falling genuinely in love.
As someone who lives with chronic depression myself, I found this book to be hands-down the best description I’ve ever read of what it’s like to go on for years with the illness eroding your hope, accomplishments, and relationships; to try treatments that don’t help enough, until you lose hope in them; to have every respite tainted by the certain knowledge that it won’t last; to find it harder and harder to start over after each bad time. Xen Sanders knows it first-hand too, and he has found the right words for it. Here’s a passage that made me nod in recognition: “[Grey] hated when he got like this, restless and full of a thousand painful nothings, the darklings chasing themselves in circles inside his head until they wore ruts in his brain. Those ruts were what got him in trouble—because they became permanent, became pathways, and suddenly every new thought diverted down their channels to an end he couldn’t avoid. Once those channels had been shallow, and the thoughts could overflow them, spill the banks, run free and rampant. But now they were a deep and silent river, dragging everything inside him into their depths.”
There’s no glossing over the real damage here. The other thing that made this the best depiction of depression I’ve read is that Sanders doesn’t offer reassurances or glib encouragement. No, “of course you can pick yourself up off the ground again!” (which sounds like an accusation of weakness if you don’t). Just an acknowledgement that this is how things are. But also an acknowledgment and reminder of the good things in life that go on existing even while you can’t appreciate them; and a depiction of what it’s like when you do pick yourself up and carry on one more time. Love doesn’t cure anything in this novel, but it exists. At the end, Grey is going to have just as hard of a time as ever, but Saint will be there with him all the while—and that’s worth a lot.
The other thing I loved about this book was how Grey lived with vodun as a serious spiritual practice. Interestingly, although it’s a fantasy novel, the loas never appear directly; in fact, there are only what you might interpret as indirect indications of prayers being answered. This makes it feel like real religious experience. Passionate faith fills his art (and the descriptions of the paintings are fascinating), and helps him at some moments of decision. All the kudos to the author for being able to depict this well.
As a romance and as a fantasy novel, Shatterproof works well. Both main characters are equally vivid (I’ve mostly talked about Grey, but Saint’s struggle to find a way to live with his guilt and feeling of being trapped is compelling too), and the connection between them is convincing and moving. It isn’t perfect: the descriptions of desire and passion are kind of purple, and it’s awkwardly structured that Saint is suddenly out of the blue told a key fact about his nature (that he’s been searching for for centuries) just in time to create a happy ending. But I can definitely recommend this book to anyone who’s willing to dive into some real darkness.