Book Review: Saga Boy

When I first came across this book, solely based on the tile alone, I knew I needed to read it, because despite my deep love for books, I do still choose them based of my visceral reaction. Otherwise known as choosing them based on their covers and this one stood out for many reasons. Being from the Caribbean, you know what the name Saga Boy means, but also it was such a refreshing thing to see something so specific to your culture in print. Finding out the author was a Trini-Canadian, then you know I definitely needed to snatch it. So this week on the blog, for the second time this year, I am reviewing a memoir. Keep reading to see my thoughts on, Saga Boy.

Synopsis:

This memoir is about a little boy who after the death of his beloved grandmother, grows up with a very tumultuous childhood, who essentially creates a handful of personas as a coping mechanism for all the different parts of himself he compartmentalizes. Feeling like he doesn’t belong in any of the “worlds” he is thrust into, he resorts to reading and silent outbursts, all while trying to find himself and be anything but follow the footsteps of his pimp, drug addicted father and drug dealing, addict brother, balancing that with his severely religious aunt and surrogate mother.

For the rest of my life, this desire to be transformed by the stage would prove difficult to resist.

Characters

Tony/Michael Downing: writer/singer/musician
Junior: Tony’s older brother
Miss Excelly/Mama: Tony & Junior’s grandmother, Al’s mother
Al Downing: Tony’s father
Gloria: Tony’s birth mother & Al’s 1st wife
Ami: Al’s 2nd wife
Aunt Joan: Mama’s daughter, Al’s sister, Tony & Junior’s Aunt
Nige/ Nigel: ( Tony & Junior’s half brother ), Ami’s son with Al
Adge/Adrian: ( Tony & Junior’s half brother ), Ami’s son with Al

Break it Down:

In so many ways, this story can be said to essentially be the story of many, many West Indian families. Stories of multi layered family structures, matriarchal, multigenerational families, abandonment and trauma, just to name a few and the one that underlined it all…R-A-C-I-S-M. And while I’m not saying this is the norm for every family, I can definitely tell you that I know enough families, be it my own or very near that this book rung very, very true to me. My own grandfather, essentially lead a double life, with a wife and 11 children in Grenada and another “wife” in Puerto Rico where he worked. His children would see him approximately once a year, where he would come bearing gifts, impregnate his wife and then leave again for another year, this continued for decades, until my grandmother found out about the other woman and sent him packing, but this wasn’t until she had had 14 pregnancies and 11 children later. I can tell you personally the impact this left on my mom and her siblings and in my mother’s case, this directly impacted her relationship ( or lack there of ) with her father, which sadly- has yet to be reconciled. So when I tell you I read this book with a thirsty fascination, an understanding and with relatable sadness, I genuinely mean it. It is 100% a memoir of a coming of age, a man grappling with his traumas and unresolved issues and essentially trying desperately not to become his father or grandfather. It is about a little boy who is plucked from the jungles of Trinidad, a simple and in some ways sheltered life, living with his deeply religious and beloved grandmother, to upon her death, be suddenly flown off to a remote, Northern Canadian town to live with his extremely religious aunt and then consequently every few years, gets shipped off to the next “family” figure who could look after him when things got tough. He recounts being bounced from his aunt, to his “step mom”/mother of his half brothers, to his father and his drug addict new wife, to back to his aunt, to another aunt, to eventually his basketball coach. The number of times his life was uprooted, with swiftness in such a short period of time was like whiplash and on top of all that turbulence, he is sexually assaulted in Trinidad, he confides in his grandmother- only for no action to be taken. This memoir, had everything, death, sexual assault, sex addiction, violence, drug and alcohol addiction, self sabotage, success, rebirth, betrayal, religion, hope.

The balance between Tony’s separate need to not become his father, all the while trying to live in the shadow on his deeply loved grandmother, who to him was everything. Almost like the angel/devil dichotomy, he would see his grandmother at his time of need and her biblical verses or songs were a huge comfort to Tony, but the call of “self-destruction” almost, was too strong. But sometimes that’s what it takes in order to succeed, we have to stumble a few times, make epic mistakes before we begin to figure it out, it just saddened me how lost he seemed to be and none of the adults in his life helped him. But on the other side- this book is about resilience and maybe it’s not obvious, but it’s about love. Even through the dysfunction and the trauma- the common thread was love, he loved his family and his desire to have them all together is very apparent. The love for his brothers, the love for his grandmother, the love for the strong women in his life.

I found it really interesting, the fact that he isn’t your “typical black male” ( whatever that means ), and just how disappointed his white counterparts were when they found out he loved reading and heavy metal music, I could relate to this a lot, though I didn’t like the same things he did, I vividly remember being told many times, I wasn’t being “Black” enough. So to hear this same internal struggle was something I could relate to. You can tell from reading, just how intelligent, thoughtful and in many ways cognizant of the world around him, from a very young age. Maybe it’s from being raised by a grandparent, he saw things through a different lens, but it is a painful read to realize just how little people seemed to think about his mental wellness. But it’s also a conversation about the struggle West Indian culture has with mental health and sexual assault/abuse. The sweeping it under the rug or the blatant ignorance of it, is hard to swallow. Tony’s turbulent and unsteady relationship with his parents was the one area I wished he kept at a distance and protected himself from, but the allure of your parents and of having the typical “nuclear” family is strong and seen as he grew up without it, you can’t blame him for romanticizing a reconciliation between his parents ( they did briefly ) and his deep desire to have a stable, less dramatic family.

The one area of the book, I genuinely didn’t follow or understand was Tony’s alter egos, and while I understand his stage performances and versions of himself, I didn’t understand their oddity, but maybe it’s more because I simply couldn’t relate to the genre of music, but also the “type” of performance. I can gather that it was very artistic and extreme as a way to garner attention and to have talking points, but I simply couldn’t understand what the alter egos allowed him to do. He speaks of feeling free and these personas allowed him to be/share the different sides of himself that no one knew. So, I can very much understand it was an outlet for him and in many ways allowed him a form of therapeutic release.

Negatives

I guess some of my “frustrations” were the fact his anecdotes are written like bursts of memories and at times it was very short stories and a little bit sporadic, but I suppose that’s how memories work. They are essentially bursts of memories, but due to the fact in this case, Tony’s life flipped over so many times in his youth, it was somewhat hard to follow who each person was and when. But on another level, it added to the reader being able, in some small way, to relate to the very unstable life he had been dealt.

100%, this book, if not for its honesty and Tony’s genuine search to be a better person, a better man- it’s impactful. For men and especially Caribbean men, who in many ways have suppressed their shared trauma and just got on with it, never sitting and attempting to understand what makes them the way they are and the ways in which they can break the cycle. If you know anything of West Indian culture/history, it is a very complicated, mixed, vibrant one, but it is also one of multi-generational struggle and trauma.

They were Caribbean women, mules of the empire, forced to carry the burden of the Crown’s dreadful legacy, of black bodies chained to the spines of ships, of broken families, of men disempowered, stripped of their status in the home, sent to roam the earth with only their sex to prove their manhood, slaves by blood and by circumstance, saga boys.

3.8 out of 5, I would have given it a 4, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.