Disclaimer: Digital ARC provided by the publisher Penguin Random House International and the Bookworms Unite PH team in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes used in this review are based on an uncorrected text.
Published by Kokila Books under the Penguin Young Readers imprint, Randy Ribay’s third book, Patron Saints of Nothing, follows Filipino-American teen Jay Reguero who finds his sheltered life in the suburbs of Michigan shattered when he learns that his cousin Jun has been killed — a victim of Duterte's brutal war on drugs. This revelation, coupled with his family's silence on the subject, compels Jay to head back to the Philippines where he then tries to gather clues on why his cousin died, and in the process, finds himself confronted by the realities surrounding morality, justice, and identity.
Told through Jay’s perspective and interspersed with letters from his late cousin Jun, Patron Saints of Nothing doesn’t hold back, with its narrative unflinching in its exploration of topics such as abuse of authority, sexism, the Filipino diaspora, American Imperialism, loss, the class divide, and privilege.
The novel’s characters are also well fleshed-out, with Jay being especially well-written: we see him struggle with his identity within the diaspora, both as an immigrant in America, and as a balikbayan in the Philippines; we see him navigate the intricacies of establishing relationships; we see him confront his guilt over what he perceives to be his role in his cousin’s untimely death.
As a novel geared towards teens, Patron Saints of Nothing packs quite an impressive punch, with the book raising logical counterarguments to the narrative callously peddled by authorities when it comes to the real-life cases involving the estimated 20,000 victims of the brutal drug war and its resulting extrajudicial killings: that the deceased are nothing more than societal scum, that their killers are heroes, and that those who dare question the government and its policies are enemies of the state. This is where Patron Saints of Nothing shines best.
Not only does it explore and discuss Duterte’s bloody war on drugs quite extensively, it does so without sacrificing nuance and depth. It also doesn’t fall prey to sensationalized narratives, opting instead to ground itself on real-life statistics, articles, and dispatches from on-ground journalists and activists covering the drug war — it mentions snippets of stories concerning Kian delos Santos, one of the youngest to fall victim to EJKs — thereby giving its narrative another layer of painful realism.
To say that there’s a lot to unpack in Patron Saints of Nothing is nothing short of an understatement. After all, the book does deal with topics that, a couple of years back, would’ve been deemed too mature for a Young Adult title. But despite its narrative being anchored on admittedly serious themes, Patron Saints of Nothing doesn’t feel heavy-handed in its approach, with Ribay’s charged and poetic writing style tapping fully into Jay’s emotions throughout the story in the most human way possible, making it relatable — and all the more compelling and deeply emotional — for its readers.
As much as it is a story of grief and loss however, Patron Saints of Nothing is at its core, a story of hope. This is perhaps best summed up by one passage in the book, in which Jay comes to a realization after everything he’s been through: "There are good things I can hold on to and there are other things I have the power to change. My family, myself, this world- all of us are flawed. But flawed doesn't mean hopeless. It doesn't mean forsaken. It doesn't mean lost. We are not doomed to suffer things as they are, silent and alone. We do not have to leave questions and letters and lives unanswered. We have more power and potential than we know if we would only speak, if we would only listen."
Lest you get the wrong notion however, this book is not perfect — there are certain aspects that I take issue with, such as the inclusion of a quasi-romantic angle, as well as the author’s treatment of Jun’s character by the time the book wraps up — but the fact remains that Patron Saints of Nothing is an important addition to the Young Adult genre mainly because of how it asks questions about injustice, and how it sparks conversations about how maintaining silence makes one complicit to abuse and wrongdoing, and how it forces its readers to look out and educate themselves on the reality outside of their personal bubbles.
Poignant, hard-hitting, courageous, and deeply moving, Patron Saints of Nothing comes out on June 18, 2019.