Book Review: None but the Righteous by Chantal James

None but the Righteous – Chantal James (Counterpoint, 2022)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. On sale now.

I’ve been pondering this novel since I finished it, trying to decide whether or not I enjoyed it. Our main character is Ham (short for Hamilton, not in honour of one of Noah’s sons) but the narrator is St. Martin, or rather the spirit of St. Martin that imbues a small relic, a pendant that Ham has unwittingly been wearing for years. St. Martin follows Ham, knows Ham intimately, and even sometimes controls his actions. The saint is portrayed more as a benevolent presence than a malignant one but when I type it out here it’s hard not to view his dominance in Ham’s life as something creepy and uncomfortable.

Ham was a foster child in New Orleans who eventually landed in the home of Miss Pearl. She is the one who gave him the pendant and her house with her son was the closest to a home that Ham has ever really known, even though he left to strike out on his own before many years had passed. We meet Ham shortly after he has fled Hurricane Katrina. Fleeing the city, he met Deborah who brought him back to her home in Alabama (I think? At one point he’s in Atlanta and I kept getting these American places mixed up.) Ham spends some time with Deborah, her brothers, and her father – enough time to leave Deborah pregnant – then heads to Atlanta (pretty sure) to track down his childhood friend, Mayfly. Then he returns to Deborah where he learns about her pregnancy and attempts to build a life with her there. Always though there is a pull in him to return to his home and see what has become of it in the wreck of the hurricane. All of this is overseen by St. Martin, as well as a few inter-spliced sections to give us a sense of the saint’s own history.

When I read American books I don’t generally feel like I’m reading a foreign novel. After all, as a Canadian, our culture and history and language are not all that different. Maybe it’s because this is a book set in the southern states. Maybe it is a cultural divide because most of the characters are Black. I honestly don’t know but I found myself confused by where Ham was, what the landscape was like, what the political situation that seemed to influence him was supposed to be. Perhaps it was because Hurricane Katrina is so central to Ham’s experiences and yet never really addressed within the novel. Of course I am aware of and remember when Hurricane Katrina occurred and its aftermath but the author seemed to rest too heavily on the expectation that her reader would know what it was like to experience a hurricane or an event of that level of destruction. Ham always seems to have this pull back to New Orleans and yet it’s never explained in physical terms what the city is to him.

Overall, this is an intriguing book with some unique ideas to it. Perhaps a reader more immersed in the culture and history of the southern United States would get more from this but I found it left me with more questions than satisfaction.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: None but the Righteous by Chantal James”

    1. Oh yes, I’ve heard a lot about that one. I believe the author is a naturalist so really knows the region. Are you enjoying it so far? I’m always a little resistant to any book that seems super popular.

  1. Atlanta is in Georgia, which is next door to Alabama, so you were close! The thing I wonder is this: is the novel set right around the time of Katrina, or today? I believe there are still recovery efforts today, and I wonder what the city looks like. Perhaps that’s why the hurricane seems like a distant memory; it is, but not to the people who live there?

    1. It’s set a few months after Katrina. So it makes sense that it was still so present for Ham but weird that everyone else seemed to think he should just move on.

    2. Oh, everything should immerse you in that setting, then. From the lack of food and shelter to the presence of the National Guard, it should all put you right there.

    3. That’s what I felt, that there should be this visceral sense of the city and what it was like in the aftermath of Katrina. Instead it’s just sort of this weird nebulous space that he seems to circle around.

  2. I would most likely have the same troubles you do – assuming a reader is familiar with anything, including a major hurricane is always a risky thing for an author to do.

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