“I drift off to sleep thinking of my cousin and me, of humanity and its problems, of oceans and islands. I imagine both of us, patron saints of nothing.”
Jay Reguero returns to the Philippines to uncover the truth behind the death of his cousin Jun, amid the drug war of the dictator Rodrigo Duterte. Armed only with letters from Jun, Jay navigates the glittering city, the narrow streets of the slums, and the countryside, in search for the real story of his cousin’s murder.
Finally, a YA novel close to home. A National Book Award finalist, Randy Ribay’s “Patron Saints of Nothing” is not your typical high school story. This coming-of-age book is about tracing your roots, of connecting to family, and finding yourself in the process. Presented on a point of view of a teenager in a way that the new generation could appreciate, this book is a discourse about poverty, corruption, and justice, of moral values and humanity that transcends nationality.
While most YA novels are set within the halls of an American high school setting, “Patron Saints of Nothing” will take you back to Jay Reguero’s motherland in search of answers. The book takes us from the glamour of the Philippine cities, to the narrow and dirty streets of its slums, to the peace and simplicity of the countryside. I was critical of the details of this book from the start, because I was looking inside rather than out. Some details that weren’t accurate we could afford not to mention. But how Ribay told his story, especially in the first few chapters, made me think that this book was just making the situation exaggerated to push a point. For example, there’s a gibe against capitalism, but a blackout on a major mall? This is not North Korea.
There’s a depiction of contrasting family values in the novel, from the family of his strict Uncle Maning who is a high ranking police officer, to his gay aunt who is a lawyer, and another uncle who became a priest. But these characters just made the book unauthentic, close to becoming a Filipino teleserye. To complete the cast, there’s a college journalism student who will help Jay on his investigation. There are also impossible scenarios that the author tried hard to turn into something more convincing but failed in the process.
“But isn’t this deeper than that, doesn’t this transcend nationality? Isn’t there some sense of right and wrong about how human beings should be treated that applies no matter where you live, no matter what language you speak?”
But the book shines when it turns its attention to the central issues: poverty, corruption, justice, and moral values. I also enjoyed the conversation of these topics in front of Juan Luna’s painting Spoliarium. The intention was not lost on me as it, to borrow the words of our national hero Jose Rizal, “embodied the essence of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice.” The discussion about the prerequisite of being a true Filipino to understand the issues hounding the country was great. The words ringing in my ears long after I finished reading the book.
Geek Rate: Sky god Worthy (5 out of 5 stars). The main purpose of the book is to expose the bloody drug war in the country which it did with some depth, but still failed to brush the surface of its severity. It was a roller coaster ride but the ending was a stroke of brilliance, pushing the spotlight not on the fight against the dictatorship, but the argument about humanity and the right to change for the better. This is one of the saddest books that I ever read. Despite its flaws, the story of Jay and Jun is important to our generation, in the hope that we don’t totally lose our sense of humanity.