Friday, January 4, 2013

Salvage the Bones by Jesamyn Ward

Over the holidays, I was writing a profile of Vassar professor and writer Kiese Laymon, who has become better known for his wonderful essays published on his blog and at Gawker. I love his voice and honesty, and I'm looking forward to checking out his books when they're published this summer (Long Division is available for pre-order on Amazon and as of now, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America the autobiographical essay collection is scheduled to be published in August.)

Anyway, during our discussion, he mentioned Jesamyn Ward, a fellow black Southern writer, and it reminded me that her second novel, Salvage the Bones was on my list of books that I wanted to read last year but didn't get around to.

I miss her so badly I have to swallow salt, imagine it running like lemon juice into the fresh cut that is my chest, feel it sting.

There are descriptions like this throughout the book, which is the story of Esch and her family in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. Her brothers Skeetah, Randall and Junior are always into something. Her dad is a broken widower with a fighting spirit. Ward didn't win the National Book Award for nothing - there is poetry and depth and sweetness even in her descriptions of mischief and betrayal. I hate to call it poetic, actually, because that seems so vague.

I like how Ward uses metaphors and analogies, the restraint in her details and, in places, the lavish nature of her descriptions.

She is in love with a manchild from the Pit, a part of town where they all live on the Gulf, Bois Sauvage. There are two narratives, here, almost three. Esch is becoming a woman, Skeetah is a dog fighter in love with his pit bull, China, and Hurricane Katrina is the shadow in the distance.

It is a little less than 200 pages - I read it as an ebook - and it reads like a companion to the triumphant Beasts of the Southern Wild. What you find in Salvage the Bones is the grit and heart of a black girl, her gumption and yearning of a black teenage girl and the rejection that stings and burns.

The book also contains humanizing and heartbreaking sex scenes. I wince while reading most fictional sex scenes and rarely mention them in reviews, in part because most literary sex skirts the often awkward corners of intimacy, but Ward does not.

Finally, there is the terror and shame of Katrina, a modern memory that made visible to America a racial and class wound that black Americans know all too well, is so recent that it is difficult to humanize, to believe that there is a story to be told about it that would evoke any further understanding, sympathy or insight.

Salvage the Bones is about waiting and worry, it is about fighting to live, whether storms are metaphorical or literal. It's a joy for readers because it makes beauty out of wreckage.

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