Wednesday, November 23, 2011

National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward

This young woman is no stranger to awards. She has been a Stegner fellow at Stanford, a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and is currently a teacher of creative writing in Alabama, but still one has to wonder how someone so young could plumb the depths of despair that are so evident in her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones.

This novel had been on my radar screen for a while and I started to read it before I realized that she was up for this prestigious award. I truly thought I would have to give it up because the writing is so raw, so gut wrenching that I just wasn't sure I could take it. Then, last week, Ms. Ward beat out even the much ballyhooed The Tiger's Wife (which I'll be discussing later this year at my library) and I knew that I would soldier on.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that it's a difficult book to read but that it's HARD to read if you get my drift. Other reviewers have stressed that this is a novel about Hurricane Katrina but it's far from that. Katrina is simply the catalyst for what I see as the true subject of this book which is love. Love in all its manifestations, family, friendship, passion, loss, memory.
 Salvage the Bones is a Greek tragedy and in fact Esch, our narrator, reads the story of Medea and Jason throughout the novel, seeing herself as the victim, no, I shouldn't say victim, but vessel of an attraction, a hunger for love so deep that it burns her soul.

In Bois Sauvage, Louisiana, in the days running up to Katrina, the young people are oblivious to the media's warnings of pending destruction. Esch's family is barely scraping by, her father mourns the death of his wife in childbirth, barely holds a job because of the alcohol, ceding care of the baby to the other kids. Randall, a talented basketball player, has a slim chance of scoring a scholarship and getting out but he is also Junior's de facto parent.

 Skeetah sublimates his need for the nurturing he missed by raising his pit bull, China, weaning her from her babies with a tenderness that tears at your heart even as he gambles on her ability in a fighting ring, a centerpiece so descriptive that any reader must turn his eyes away in horror at the unsettling violence. This is not a novel for the faint of heart.

I've never read a book like this. I gasp aloud at some of the metaphors, so apt, so perfectly placed. I rage against the poverty that ties this family to its home as the hurricane waters begin to rise. I agonize with Esch as she senses the life growing in her womb, frightened yet accepting of impending motherhood, beating back the rejection from Manny, the most likely father and the object of her outsized passion. In fact, this entire little novel (250p.) is outsized in its passion, which is why it deserves all the accolades that it gets.

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