Randy Ribay's moving 'Patron Saints of Nothing' a YA tale of grief, Philippine drug war

Delfina Barbiero
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Randy Ribay's moving 'Patron Saints of Nothing' a YA tale of grief, Philippine drug war

A teenage immigrant returns to the Philippines to investigate the death of his cousin in Randy Ribay's fantastic "Patron Saints of Nothing."
"Patron Saints of Nothing," by Randy Ribay.

Jay is just a typical Michigan teen when he finds out that his estranged and beloved cousin has died in a brutal, government-sanctioned drug war halfway across the world.

Author Randy Ribay pulls no punches in "Patron Saints of Nothing" (Kokila, 352 pp., ★★★½ out of four), which Epic Reads calls one of the most anticipated YA books of the summer. Born in the Philippines and raised in Michigan, Ribay understands Jay’s confusion about his identity and the isolation he feels from his extended family. Ribay also pulls from current events to write about the cruel policy against drug addicts made under the current Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte.

Since taking office, Duterte has carried out a war on drugs that permits the killing of any drug addict and drug pusher by police. Human Rights Watch has estimated that since 2016, over 12,000 Filipinos have been killed in the drug war, most of them poor.

When Jay learns that his beloved cousin, Jun, was killed in the drug war, he sets out on a journey to a country he barely remembers to find out exactly what happened to his cousin. Jay believe his cousin did not die in the drug war because of drugs — but possibly for shedding light on police abuse.

Jun is the “Saint” of the story, a young man only a few years older than Jay but with a wisdom and kindness that surpasses even the adults in this story. Jay and Jun spent their youths countries apart but were pen pals. Even though Jay stopped replying to Jun’s letters, Jun continuously wrote to him with honesty and kindness. Through the letters, Jun reveals to Jay the hypocrisy of the church, the vulnerability of the poor and his feeling trapped under the watchful gaze of his emotionally abusive father.

Who also happens to be the police chief.

Author Randy Ribay.

Jay takes these old letters with him to the Philippines to try to piece together any clues he might find. But what he finds is a family more willing to sweep the death of their son under the rug than to even have a proper funeral.

As mysterious as the plot is, the book is no thriller and has a purposefully slow pace. And that is the pace of grief. "Patron Saints of Nothing" is part coming-of-age story, part mystery. But more than anything, it is an exploration of finding your identity through grief itself — not only the grief of loss, but the regret of a lost connection. Ribay paints a family that cannot communicate with each other, but longs for the emotional embrace of a strong family.

As an immigrant myself, I felt deeply connected to the humiliation of being ignorant of your own country and only learning from being there yourself just how privileged and at loss you can be without your family.

Ribay’s novel is not one to miss. It's a perfect balance of an immigrant story, an American story and a story of grief, woven together by the perspective of a teenage boy trying to understand his family and himself.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Randy Ribay's moving 'Patron Saints of Nothing' a YA tale of grief, Philippine drug war

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