Author: Margot Douaihy
Review Written By: Elliot Eatinger
In the unconventional life of Sister Holiday Walsh, two profound factors begin to consume her
life: God, and fire.
Saint Sebastian’s School in New Orleans is stricken with tragedy when a rogue case of arson
leaves two students (and the nun who saved them) injured, and a beloved custodian dead. The
problem is that the death looks to be far from an accident. This series of unexplained events
sends Sister Holiday on a determined path of crime solving, fueled by a complex admiration for
the Holy Ghost and truth-seeking, while ghosts from her own past chase her down at every turn.
(without major spoilers)
Sister Holiday is a queer, punk nun from Brooklyn who relocated to New Orleans after an
inexplicable string of tragedies and come-to-Jesus moments, following in the footsteps of her
former devotee mother. If that isn’t enough of a character pull, I don’t know what it is.
This story undoubtedly has a complex relationship with Catholicism and devotion, saddled from
the perspective of someone who has found guidance in faith even when it’s tested. It might be a
complicated read for anyone who has left a faith of religion – and I say that speaking from
experience. I think it’s well worth the read regardless because it provides a unique perspective
that I haven’t seen in contemporary fiction in some time. Sister Holiday’s faith – along with the
unwavering faith of the Sisters of the Sublime Blood – is one that drives the story through every
slow climb, sharp turn, and freefalls into the unknown.
This is also a story with blood in its teeth and grit under its nails; Douhaiy unapologetically
explores the shades of gray in every single character, especially its lead in Sister Holiday. These
are deeply flawed, complex people who go through the motions of this increasingly strenuous
time and dig their nails into the story, as it haunts and follows them just as they might follow it.
The other three Sisters of the convent, along with Saint Sebastian’s other staff, all prove to be a
surprising supporting cast that you don’t want to let go of. Honestly, I could’ve done with the
book being longer in order to spend more time with them.
There’s one part in particular – with a couple of tense encounters between Holiday and Prince
Dempsey, a delinquent student with a troubled past, foreshadowing written all over him (just not
the way you’d think) – that had me set aback. It’s made extremely clear through the narrative
that Sister Holiday is someone who is constantly seeking penance for her messier past, while
trying to use those breakneck instincts to solve what feels like an unsolvable case; whether you
like her or hate her, she certainly drives forward. The overarching narrative, interwoven with
flashbacks of Holiday’s life prior to the convent, and ghosts of her making new appearances
provides the reader a chance to decide for themselves.
I wanted to spend far more time with Maggie Riveaux, the sharp and sardonic fire inspector with
messes and secrets of her own. There’s a dichotomy presented in between her – a Black woman
prominent in her field – and one of her deeply ignorant, casually bigoted white counterparts in
the police department that proves itself as a clear set of cracks in this fictionalized setting of New
Orleans’ public servants, but doesn’t quite sink its teeth into a deeper commentary in favor of the
relentless pace of narrative pursuit.
There’s a fascinating landscape right behind her that is shown with great love and complex
admiration, through Douhaiy’s rich poetic prose – and it was another one of those moments
where I found myself asking for more attention to the gems hidden in the cracks. My next
question for Douhaiy might be about what would she do, if we spent more time in this world?
There are a lot of open ends left, and maybe it’s on purpose, with the Gillian Flynn book deals
Overall, I think it’s a deeply rewarding novel. The ending and final sets of twists hurled me back
to the very beginning of the book, and demanded attention to what I might have missed along the
way. Scorched Grace is brutal and brilliant and one hell of a debut prose novel. I’m looking
forward to what she does next.
Content warnings for: violence, graphic depictions of injury and death, homophobia.