When the Saints by Sarah Mian

Is it possible to redeem a family name that has been a curse word for generations?

22812831When I first came across this book, and saw that it was from an Atlantic Canadian author, I took note of it. Then, I saw this glowing review of it at The Star, and I knew I wanted to read it. As luck would have it, the author’s name starts with an ‘M’, so it fits nicely into my A-Z CanLit Challenge.

I was especially excited about it, because Sarah Mian is a debut author and a fellow Nova Scotian. I was so, so hoping to like this book, so that I could say lots of good things about it. And I did, so I can!

The Saints are the lowest of the low. They live in poverty out on the dirt road, with a criminal for a father who doesn’t mind beating around his wife and kids. Everyone in town shunned them, nothing good was ever expected of them, and no one wanted them around.

The only thing we can do is leave. But where are we supposed to go? No one wants us. It’s the story of the Saints, and it goes all the way back to Garnet Saint and his travelling shit show. Grandpa Jack may have been a thieving drunk from birth, but Daddy had a good woman who actually believed he deserved a chance. He could have got a proper job, paid his taxes, put food on our table. What did he do instead? Tried to be the biggest asshole in the world, It’s probably the only thing he ever succeeded at.

After being away for 11 years, Tabby has returned home, only to find the old house deserted. When she finds that her family has all moved to another town, she goes in search of them, and discovers that nothing has changed. They are in a heap of trouble, and Tabby seems like the only person who can help. But, are they worth sticking around for, or should she cut and run before things get worse?

I bet Ma treats him like a baby just so she can take care of him, the same way she comes in and hands me a towel the minute she hears me turn on the tap. She can’t protect us from getting our brains kicked in or being raped by some motel slumlord, but she shows up with hot soup and clean towels.

Tabby Saint has ‘been around’, but she longs for a normal life and for somewhere to belong. She is tough, but likeable, and you can’t help but root for. Her sense of humour helps get her through life, in much the same as the humour in the novel helps to get us through the rough lives these characters live. They are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and abuse. Sarah Mian brings to light what it is like to brought up ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’.

I turn my face toward the breeze, trying to block out the memories playing like little horror films along the outer walls of the house. Even with my eyes closed, I see my brothers throwing chicken bones at each other, setting fire to anything they could get their hands on, baby Poppy toddling out to the road in a dirty homemade diaper, Ma yelling at her to come back, Daddy gunning his truck up the driveway and almost clipping her. I see fights, broken glass, cold meals, all of us pissing into the wind any time we tried to spin our bits of straw into gold.

I can’t write about this book without talking about West and Janis. West is Tabby’s love interest, whom we meet early on in the book. He has issues of his own, but next to Tabby and her family, he seems downright angelic. Here he is saying grace before a meal:

“I feel like we should say grace or something.” I think he’s joking, but he closes his eyes and says, “Dear Lord, thank you for the roast, finally. It looks goddamn delicious. And thank you for keeping hothead hicks out of my tavern and helping Tabby find her sister in Jubilant. Oh, and for her walking into my life and the good sex and all that. Amen.”

Janis is Tabby’s 5-year-old niece. Her first 5 years of life have been rough, living in a run-down old trailer with her little brother, grandmother, and her 21-year-old junkie of a mother. But, she will steal your heart with her funny ways, just as she did Tabby’s. When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, she says she wants to be “a bagpipe blower”.

Because. You walk at parades and you have hangy things on your socks, and a purse that goes in the front, and you don’t got to put on no underpants. Everybody goes ‘ooh aah’ and takes pictures of you. They can hear you coming for a long time, and there’s a person at the back who bangs on a drum this big… And old men watch and cry because they wish they got to play the bagpipes and now they’re too old.

Despite the fact that this book is full of poverty, abuse, and extreme language (no, really), it is also full of heart and hope. It sends the message that you have the power to make your own life. I thought this story was fresh and original; it shocked me, gutted me, made me laugh, and made me care. I’ll be first in line for Sarah Mian’s next book.

“… When the Saints is the story of a clan of outsiders whose redemption might be found in what they longed to escape: each other.”

I always read the acknowledgements at the end of a book. They are usually pretty straight forward, but sometimes they give me some insight into the story or the author. I love this paragraph I found in Mian’s acknowledgements:

 A couple of years ago, an article in The New Yorker condemned author acknowledgements as a waste of space. I say the world needs more gratitude, not less. Ditching the acknowledgements would be like showing your film and not rolling the credits afterwards, or putting out an album without naming the audio engineer or any of the background singers. And so, a final shout out: To Nova Scotia, you beautiful blue bastard. I am proud to come from a place where everyone says thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now, how can you not want to go read her book?

Here’s an interview with Sarah Mian at Atlantic Books Today that came out just hours before I planned to post my review. Good timing! She talks about the inspiration behind her book, her main source of research, and what she hopes readers might get out of it. She also gives a small hint at her next story.


21 thoughts on “When the Saints by Sarah Mian

    • Naomi says:

      It really was a refreshing read, which seems strange to say since the story is so full of downtrodden people and their foul language. But, her characters are so easy to care about, and there were many laugh-out-loud moments for me. What a great way for her to shine some light on the fact that some people are not as fortunate as others to get a good start on life, but does that mean they should just be written off?

  1. Buried In Print says:

    This sounds terrific: I’m adding it to my list. And how fortuitous that you discovered it just when you were in need of an “m” (though I’m sure, of all the letters, there was heavy competition for that slot!). That bit in the acknowledgements would have hooked me too!

    • Naomi says:

      One reason I was so happy that it fit into the ‘M’ slot was exactly because I knew ‘M’ would be the hardest letter to choose a from – so many good writers. But, reading this one at the right time made it easy.

      I think you’ll like this – I can’t wait to hear what you think.

  2. Karen @ One More Page... says:

    You had me at the first line, Naomi! This sounds like such an interesting book, one that could really grab you and hold you. I love all of the excerpts you chose. The acknowledgement is especially wonderful; I’ve never read an acknowledgement that wasn’t worth reading.

  3. Julianne - Outlandish Lit says:

    This sounds AMAZING. I really want to get into more Canadian books, because I’m a close Minnesotan neighbor (and because the books I HAVE read from Canada have only been great). So I’ll definitely be checking this out. Love the acknowledgements part too. I always read them!

    • Naomi says:

      I’m so happy you stopped by my blog! Anyone who loves CanLit and wants to read more is a friend of mine. I hope you can find lots more you like on my blog, but this one is a great start! I was just visiting your blog to see what kinds of books you like, and I think this one will fit in nicely. Thanks for commenting!

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