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When the Saints

by Sarah Mian

Sarah Mian is a true storyteller – a poet and short-story writer, the Nova Scotia–based author is also a fixture on CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera. She certainly knows how to spin a good yarn, and there are yarns aplenty in her debut novel – a bawdy and irreverent chronicle of one hard-luck family’s search for redemption.

When The Saints (Sarah Mian) coverSet in the fictional Nova Scotia towns of Solace River and Jubilant, Mian’s novel is narrated by Tabby Saint, a mouthy twentysomething who returns home after being sent away as a teen. Back in town for the first time in years, Tabby discovers a once-proud mother who seems to have given up all hope; a brother, Bird, suffering severe brain damage after an attack; a second brother who has fathered kids all over town, with another on the way; a deadbeat father on his deathbed; and a heroin-addicted prostitute sister and her two children. This motley collection of souls stirs up no shortage of trouble for Tabby, who must also negotiate her newfound romance with West, a bartender whose money-grubbing ex may or may not still be in the picture.

A farcical plot ensues upon the discovery of a cache of blood-streaked money buried in the garage of the abandoned family home and the kidnapping of Tabby’s nephew by the man responsible for Bird’s injury. But these contrivances feel hollow in this novel of hilarious anecdotes. It’s as though the plot were merely an excuse for Tabby to launch into ever funnier reminiscences. “[Poppy and I] never spent much time together,” Tabby muses about the siblings’ childhood, “partly because she was so much younger than me, and partly because she was a crazy little bitch.”

Even the death of Tabby’s father is presented with charred-black humour: “Daddy’s dead,” Poppy informs her family from a hospital payphone. “Can someone bring me down a bag of ketchup chips? The vending machine ate my fucking loonie.” It’s easy to imagine Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers adapting this beguiling novel.