Some categories of reading challenge prompts are easier to fill than others. I’m usually able to settle on a book fairly quickly, but for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, the prompt to read a bildungsroman (that’s a coming-of-age novel) had so many good choices that it was a little tough to pick! I finally settled on Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (Kokila, 2019) because of its timely focus on Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that involves heinous extrajudicial killings of addicts and dealers. The stories I’ve read about this in the news are almost too terrible to contemplate, and I knew that this was a subject I needed to read more about, however painful.
Jay, a Filipino-American high school senior, is lacking some serious motivation for life, but everything is thrown up into the air when he learns that his cousin and childhood friend Jun has been killed in the Philippines as part of the country’s war on drugs. Shocked and devastated, even though he lost touch with Jun a few years back, Jay travels to the Philippines to visit family and learn the truth about what happened to Jun. Their family, however, is keeping things under wraps, and in order to learn the truth, Jay’s going to have to do a little digging.
But his digging reveals more questions and uncomfortable truths, along with angering his smug, self-righteous uncle even more. Along with coming to terms with who his cousin really was, Jay finally finds the connection to his homeland that he never felt before, and the connection to his Filipino family that he’s been missing all his life.
Randy Ribay has absolutely crafted a painful coming-of-age novel that speaks to current world events. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a novel set in the Philippines before, so that part of the story was especially fascinating for me to read. And setting the characters right smack in the middle of the devastating effects of Duterte’s anti-drug policies is a bold move for a YA novel, but it works, and it sheds some light on a subject that hasn’t gotten nearly enough media attention around the world.
Ribay raises some interesting points here, questions that Jay ponders and others that are merely inferred. Do universal truths about how to treat your fellow human, truths that transcend culture and location and history, exist? Is it brave or foolish to stand up for what’s right when the vast majority are against you and the consequences very well may be fatal? How far should you be willing to go to expose the truth? Does being addicted to drugs mean the rest of your life, all of your accomplishments and who you are as a person, is worthless? He also paints complex, realistic characters who are deeply flawed but not without redeeming qualities, even at their worst.
This is a deeply sad novel, but its conclusion is not without hope, though, given the current state of *gestures broadly at everything*, I left feeling a little less optimistic. Jay comes to conclusions that, while they wouldn’t be the path I chose, made sense to him. I so much enjoy YA that tackles heavy current events like this, and Patron Saints of Nothing does a really excellent job at shining a light on a situation everyone- not just teenagers- needs to be aware of.