Review: When The Saints

by Sarah Mian (Harper)

Sarah Mian's debut novel, When the Saints, is a sly and funny book about a scrappy family living through some trying times. Tabby Saint is the tough and admirably resourceful protagonist who returns to her home of Solace River, Nova Scotia, after being more or less abandoned years earlier as a child. She returns to find the Saint family's dejected matriarch and her hodgepodge of siblings: the junkie sister and two brothers, one who inadvertently caused the crippling of the other. They are each, in their own way, trying and failing to do better by their family name.

When the Saints is a lot more fun than it sounds. Sure, it's gritty and dark and chock full of unenviable people and situations, but never fails to find a twisted kind of levity in some familiar tropes. Even the children are foul-mouthed and hilarious while simultaneously serving in the book's grimmer subplot involving a revenge kidnapping.

Another delight of this book is its character and place names. There is a Bird, a West, a Swimmer, a Poppy from Solace River, or Jubilant or Cable. But this is still far from a zany tale of oddballs surviving poverty with pluck and aplomb. Mian goes through great lengths to illustrate the joy and vivacity of lives lived under constant duress, while also uncovering the dangers that come when people are forced to protect what little they have. This is not the Nova Scotia I'm used to reading about, but it's one I would have gladly stayed in for another 250 pages.

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