Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

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Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Complex plot of three teenagers growing up in the wake of the death of another teenager against a backdrop of 1980s New York's East Village. Evocative of the time but the complexities of the characters aren't fully played out.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Quercus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780872193

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Eleanor Henderson's debut novel Ten Thousand Saints is set in late 1980s Vermont and, more memorably, New York. Opening in 1987 we discover in the second sentence that one of the two boys hiding under the stands to the Vermont school football field on match day will die that night. It's a powerful opening. From then on, the book deals first with Teddy's death and then with the life he has left behind in the form of his friend Jude, Jude's sort of step sister Eliza and Teddy's older brother Johnny. It's a world of broken homes and the trinity of sex and drugs and rock and roll, or more specifically punk. Henderson is particularly good at evoking the underground scene in New York at the time before the unlikely combination of AIDS and mayoral intervention combined to clean up the city.

Henderson creates some interesting conflicts, particularly in the character of Johnny. He's living almost rough in New York, working as an illegal tattoo artist and playing in a punk band. However, he is a also a follower of the 'Straight Edge' movement, avoiding alcohol and drugs and is known on the scene as Mr Clean. Meanwhile Jude moves from living with his mother who has a local business in Vermont producing and selling, amongst other things, glass bongs to living with his father, who grows marijuana and is in a somewhat unlikely relationship with an English former ballerina. He's steeped in the world of drugs but Teddy's death and his relationship with Johnny changes this.

However, while Henderson's depiction of the New York scene is convincing and detailed, evoking the time and movements well, she is less strong at character development. She has created some terrific set ups but her characters don't seem to come alive or to embrace and explore the conflicts. There's very little empathy or sympathy with any of her three main characters throughout which makes the book a rather depressing read for me. It's slightly frustrating as she has created the required interesting traits of her characters but they don't seem to be living and exploring what makes them interesting.

Part of the problem is that she has created a deeply plotted scenario and in order to go through the stages of the story, and to describe the New York scene is such detail, there's little room for her characters to breath and come alive. Add to this that some of her minor characters, the adults, seem to be rather two dimensional and fairly unlikely (Teddy's mother is an alcoholic whose past relationships include a lawyer whose lack of persistence is bizarre and a convicted felon while I never for one moment believed in Jude's parents' situation) and the result is far less engrossing than it could have been.

In her acknowledgements she writes to her son 'don't ever do any of the stupid things in this book' and this may be part of the problem. In discouraging the activities she focuses on the grim side of them and ignores much of what attracts people to them. It almost needs some celebration of the activities in order to contrast with the impact that they have. Without this, it becomes quite a grim and depressing read and while the book does evoke the time, it doesn't really capture the energy of the people who inhabited it.

However, while the characterisation is slightly strangled by the intricate plotting, the descriptions of late '80s New York's East Village underground scene of CBGB's hardcore music scene are well worth reading.

Our thanks to the kind people at Quercus for sending us this book.

For more fiction looking at the underbelly of US society, I would strongly recommend Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

Buy Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson at Amazon.com.


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