If Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints is what a debut novel should look like, then I (and many other authors, aspiring and published alike) should just give up on the pipe dream now. No other book in recent memory has resounded with me for so long – in fact, Saints raised the bar so high that I didn’t read anything else for a week after I’d turned the last page, because nothing I read next could compare.
Ten Thousand Saints is, at its heart, a story about two best friends named Teddy and Jude – one of whom has to grow up too fast, and the other of whom never gets the chance to. When Teddy dies of an accidental overdose, he leaves behind a world devastated by his absence – and a pregnant one-night stand, Jude’s fifteen-year-old stepsister, Eliza. The grieving characters form a makeshift family around this pregnancy, every member hoping to keep Teddy’s memory alive for just a little longer.
While Henderson’s Saints spans time and space, navigating deftly from 1987 through 2000, Vermont to New York City, it’s also a book of great cultural and historical awareness. Her characters are each intimately affected by the straight-edged music scene; one in particular feels the devastating power of the early AIDS epidemic. Sexuality, sexual orientation; drugs, alcohol and excess – while admittedly extreme, the novel’s underlying themes are all handled with great understanding.
And if, amidst the guitar riffs and drumbeats, the reader starts to feel a little overwhelmed by the noise, it’s at the precise instant when the characters, too, are reaching their breaking point.
Saints is meant to challenge. It strives to overwhelm.
And it does so remarkably well.