Cover art for “None but the Righteous” owned by Counterpoint

“None But the Righteous” by Chantal James is hard to approach because of its intentionally discombobulated beginning and unwillingness to slow down. Admirably, the author trusts her words to stand on their own without exposition; there is little hand-holding in this narrative. The novel recounts the displacement following Hurricane Katrina and favors emotion, feeling and lyricism over content — it is both a phenomenal psychological portrait and a poor piece of literature. Despite the beautiful prose, the novel lacks a grounding emotional center.

“None But the Righteous” follows Ham, an adrift teenage boy who meanders through dying Americana towns and Southern cities after Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 Category 5 storm that devastated his hometown of New Orleans. Ham is haunted by two specters: his own suppressed personality and the ghost of Saint Martin. The ghost that accompanies Ham is a real historical figure, the 17th century Peruvian Saint Martin de Porres and the first Black man from the Americas canonized by the Catholic church.

Through Ham and Martin, Jones speaks elegantly about loss and listlessness. Ham moves through the motions of life, letting himself be pushed along with the current. This is a book I plan to re-read later during a personal catastrophe along with the novel “Let the Great World Spin.” Both document the unimaginable — and I suspect I would find “None But the Righteous” more resonant if read under different circumstances. However, despite capturing the sense of listlessness, “None But the Righteous” suffers from errant and lackluster character development. 

Rather than being an obstacle for Ham to overcome, Martin is unremarkable — it’s a feat for a 17th-century ghost to be boring. His purpose and motivation are ambiguous and he rarely impacts the plot. Occasionally, Martin serves as a half-developed shorthand for emotional repression and coping mechanisms. When Ham’s mind wanders, Martin takes over his motor functions and makes him lose time. However, Martin fails to compensate for Ham’s deadened emotions and senses. The ghostly possessions are irrelevant; just as Ham bumbles through life, Martin mimics him. Neither a positive nor negative character, Martin’s lack of purpose deprives the novel of a desperately needed emotional tether and counterbalance to Ham’s ambivalence. 

The novel repeatedly implies that Ham’s personality resides somewhere under all the repression, but it never lets Ham be more than a facsimile of a person. Ham is a ghost on the page, moving through other people’s lives without making any meaningful contributions. Other characters are similarly stagnant. There’s a family Ham half-heartedly interacts with and then leaves behind. The women in the novel are introduced and then forgotten, merely temporary harbors that shelter or indulge Ham. They have set routines and predilections that let the author launch into grandiose, MFA-worthy paragraphs on what it means to live in the rural South. Unfortunately, that’s it. The novel is so focused on setting up locations and people and imbuing them with symbolism that the characters get neglected. 

Two-thirds through the book, Ham gets a girl pregnant in her childhood bedroom and then walks out before the baby is due. When he comes back, Jones spends an eon describing the miniscule shifts in the girl’s face and mannerisms yet deprives the character of speech. The novel favors style over cohesive character development. It’s purely aesthetic. That focus on experience would be absolutely fine, but the book bills itself differently. It’s a ghost story with a boring ghost. It’s a story of emotional turmoil without emotion. It’s a story about pressure without catharsis.

“None But the Righteous” is an incredibly frustrating read because it is almost amazing. Jones’s work struggles under her ambitions to craft both compelling characters and a portrait of trauma and repression. 

Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at