Jim Morphy casts a critical eye over Salvage the Bones the latest novel from Jesmyn Ward.
‘I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, neither is there any can deliver out of my hand’. With these words from Deuteronomy 32:39, Jesmyn Ward begins her highly impressive US National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones. As you might expect, so follows a tale imbued with Biblical myth taking in life, death, suffering, and dashed with occasional light.
The all-powerful Hurricane Katrina is fast approaching the Mississippi Gulf town of Bois Sauvage, where our narrator, fifteen-year-old Esch, lives with her alcoholic father and three brothers. But even the hurricane’s threat offers little more than a menacing backdrop: the novel starts with the disaster 10 days away, and the siblings have concerns far more immediate.
The children have been dealt tough cards from on-high. They live a raw existence feeding off scraps in their poverty-stricken community. Mum has died, and Dad offers little. We see their efforts in fighting for themselves, and, when they can, caring for each other. Esch is highly literate and streetwise, but her future already looks bleak: she is pregnant, alone with her thoughts, and doesn’t know where to turn. The brothers’ hopes rely on winning money from dog fights and dreams of basketball scholarships.
‘We on our backs staring at the stars above, Talking about what we going to be when we grow up, I said what you wanna be? She said, Alive.’ Lyrics from Outkast’s Aquemini album run alongside the Biblical words in the book’s preface. As well as setting out the novel’s underlying sense of hope, this epigraph also suggests the language and style in which the tale is told.
For you see, Ward’s novel presents an intriguing mash-up of reference points. The language is Southern black street-talk, but laced with heavy use of elaborate simile and allusions to heady literature. Esch’s physical life revolves around scavenging, play, and rough sex, but her head is full of thoughts of tender love and Greek mythology. This is a big story about the disaster that struck New Orleans and the plight of America’s black underclass, but it is told through confined, personal tales of a few children salvaging what they can from their grim surroundings.
Ward is largely successful in bringing together these disparate concerns into a coherent narrative. In particular, the characters shine through. Esch is a strong, likeable lead. Her first person, present-tense narration gives rise to the book’s mix of urgent action and deep reflection. Her brother Skeetah’s relationship with his prized pit-bull terrier, China, provides much of the novel’s narrative energy. The book starts with a visceral passage in which the mother is birthing puppies, and it ends with the canine in danger of being swept away by the hurricane. In between, we see China scrapping and scraping, and the pups dying in the dirt one by one. Ward revels in the physicality of the dogs and the children. This book is full of ravishing descriptions of body hitting body and body hitting matter. Bodies tell stories, as Esch says.
Despite being one of the book’s defining qualities, the juxtaposition of styles and cultures is, at times, also its weakness. Ward’s use of expansive simile can jar in the stark realism of the story. And when the young Esch is making extravagant connections between the mythical Medea, Katrina, China and herself, it is difficult not to hear the voice of Ward rather than that of the narrator. While Ward stretches the parallels to near breaking point, the unsubtle references do work in drawing attention to one of the book’s central themes: What is ‘motherhood?’The pregnant Esch is looking for answers from the three forces of nature. What is it to hold such power, whether good or bad? What is it to love, to nurture, to fend, and to fight for what is yours?
The exploration of big-hearted kinship is key to the novel. Supportive words and tender touches mean a lot in this community riddled with problems. Ward has us begging for the protagonists to experience warmth, and only lets us have it once we’ve looked into the abyss. The book builds to an edge-of-the-seat ride as the hurricane hits town. The disaster’s effects are profound. ‘She left us to learn how to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes’, says Esch. Readers will emerge from this book gasping for breath. But the lasting feeling from this coming-of-age yarn is one of life affirmation. Even if it is not without its faults, this is a fresh, urgent and important novel. Ward’s is a voice to be listened to.