Review: Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

A coming-of-age novel that doesn’t pull many punches, Ten Thousand Saints opens with Jude and Teddy getting high under the bleachers of their Vermont high school in 1987, dreaming of escape. When Teddy’s half-step-sister, Eliza, arrives for New Years Eve from distant, thrilling NYC, events are set in motion that will change all of their lives forever, as an unfortunate cocktail of drugs at a party means that Teddy doesn’t live to see ’88 (not a spoiler – this is given away pretty early on). The repercussions of Teddy’s death are far-reaching and in Eliza’s case, perhaps a little bit contrived. Jude moves to New York to find Teddy’s half-brother and gets involved in the straight-edge scene, rejecting the drugs that killed his best friend, the drink he had never been that into, and the sex he wasn’t having anyway. Meanwhile, we see Teddy and Jude’s parents, half-parents and broken families – each with their own baggage left over from their 70s hippy history – make clumsy attempts to steer their children to safety, without any real idea of what that might be.

The title is a reference to Saint Jude, for whom Jude is named, as well as Johnny’s flirtation with Hare Krishna, and suggests the redemptive qualities to be found in the most unlikely of places. The apparent ‘saintliness’ of the straight-edge scene is shown to be just as desperate, addictive and motivated by darker emotions than drug addictions, and its violence is offset by the more timid, hippy sensibilities of their parents. And while there might not be ten thousand of them, the book overflows with characters, following Jude, Eliza, Johnny, their parents, and a host of excellently drawn supporting characters a vibrant, gritty portrait of New York.

Henderson’s obviously done her research, about the protests against the gentrification of Brooklyn at that time and about straight-edge culture, and it was genuinely pleasurable to learn about a period of NYC’s history through her writing. But there is something a bit rag bag in her inclusion of all the Big Hitting Issues of the 80s – we’ve got the policing, the teen pregnancy, the AIDS crisis, the straight-edge scene, the young angry teens – and while the novel’s too well written for them to really feel like they’re competing, the novel can sometimes sound exactly like the clamouring adolescent hormones of its characters, without much sense of respite. I read a really interesting review that compared it to Peter Pan in the total absence of adult authority, the chaos and exuberance, but also the slight sense of unreality. But I think that helps. Like the pregnancy that emerges, each character goes through their own gestation period, a crazy and sometimes desperate incubation that forms and forges them. And I think once you get on for the ride, and accept that some of the freewheeling plot is a bit ridiculous, then the novel becomes a very powerful portrait of adolescence.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Masterful, but not a masterpiece.

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