Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

One sentence plot

A poor Mississippi family struggle to instill hope and humanity in their harsh daily lives as Hurricane Katrina approaches.


The review

I was literally prepared to hate this Hurricane Katrina-themed book. It gave the vibe of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie that reviewers fawned over and I hated. The book’s central action is pit bull dog fighting – and I don’t really enjoy reading about that type of violence in any great detail. But mainly I was prematurely biased because my wife and friends had read it before me in anticipation of a discussion at our new book club, and were vocal in their distaste for it. I like book clubs for getting you to read things you otherwise wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole. Having been obliged to read it though, I don’t know whether I’m glad.

The book is interesting in many ways. It vividly depicts the sort of grinding poverty that makes it absolutely clear why this family just wouldn’t have the means or drive or option to flee to safety when the hurricane warnings came, as their white, richer neighbors did. It gives a fascinating and realistic-sounding description of what it was like before and during the hurricane. It examines a family scrabbling for hope and survival after the death of their wife/mother. The father turns to drink; his hope is in the past. One brother turns to basketball. The girl, Esch, turns to sex. Another brother turns to dog fighting, dreaming of making his family’s fortune and pouring his love and care into the family’s great white hope, a vicious and prize winning pit bull terrier by the name of China. But there is a depressing inevitability that none of these bids for hope will turn out well. Indeed, the tragedy of this book is that there is little hope for this family. The crescendo of Katrina, when it comes, is just another setback in a life of harsh brutality and inevitable setbacks. The tender moments intended to offer a glimmer of hope are really not that hopeful. This family will survive, but it is not easy to imagine them ever flourishing.

Part of my trouble with this book was the characters. While the whole miserable setting and situation are vividly depicted, the characters themselves did not emerge to me as fully formed, sympathetic people. Personalities and characterization are not the building blocks of this book; rather they seem more of a device to help depict the plight and experiences of ‘a people’ rather than ‘people’. However, if accepting the characters as more representative than actual, it is interesting to follow the parallel stories of the girl Esch and the pit bull China – competitors in love, esteem and value.

This sort of thing is typical of the author’s style – she is poetic, lyrical, and a big fan of similes and metaphors – indeed, to excess. Most of the time they work; many other times they seem self-conscious and distracting, and sometimes onerous to read, as though they were written to fuel a high school English class’s essay on imagery. There are metaphors within metaphors galore. She also uses devices like Esch’s reading Greek myths as a microcosm for the tragedy unfolding in front of her (or vice versa); again, an interesting technique that is awkward in its execution. From the book group feedback, this style is either loved or despised, depending on the reader.

This is a book with a lot of promise, some interesting ideas, some luminous moments, some less good moments, and overall, the major need of a good editor. Against the odds, I found much of it compelling. It will be interesting to see Ward’s next work – as she matures as a writer, she may be one to watch.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes


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