We read Brent van Staalduinen’s Saints, Unexpected for book club, and if it hadn’t been a book club read I likely wouldn’t have finished it. I’m loathe to write a negative review for a book that is so obviously earnest: written by a local author, published by a small press, in every way a book that wears its heart on its cover. So it gives me no pleasure to report that it is… not good.
Following a 15 year old girl in the summer her family business, a second hand store, comes under attack from Big Bad Gentrifiers, the book is ostensibly about how local folks respond to the pressures of gentrification. Set in my hometown of Hamilton, this issue is certainly a pressing one, and not a theme I’ve seen taken up frequently in other novels. Together with this ‘big’ pressure is the pressure within the family of a sick child. I guess it’s trying to be a coming of age story, too, but because the protagonist is so terribly written it’s hard to commit to caring about her development.
Without going into painful detail I’ll just say that I found the characterization weak, particularly the imagining of a young woman’s perspective. The timeline and sequencing was both a relentless ‘ever-present’ (thanks to C. from book club for pointing this out) and yet somehow also inconsistent and baffling in its framing of 20 years later, 20 years before and when is now? The magic realism element of a magical niche that provides objects for the store was a genuinely interesting idea that wasn’t fully realized, integrated or explained. The inclusion of the sick child read as emotionally manipulative, in part because the characterization was so weak that there wasn’t a lot of empathetic connection. Okay, so turns out that was a bit of painful detail.
I appreciated reading my city and recognizing its themes on the page. So there’s that.