I’ve never braved a hurricane, eaten luke-warm peas and Vienna Sausages from the can, nor swallowed down the terror of teenage pregnancy. But in reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, I tasted just a hint of these experiences. Days later, the bittersweet flavor still coats my tongue, as it is with the best of novels.
Ward’s Faulkneresque style of writing captivated me from the beginning. Set in rural Mississippi the days surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the novel begins with the birth of litter of puppies. It’s not an idyllic caricature of birth, but bloody, vicious, and awesome. Truthful. The narrator, Esch, hovers in the doorway of the dusty shed, watching with both veneration and fear. At fourteen, she too is pregnant.
Motherhood stands a central theme of this novel. Infamous Medea and her betrayal at the hands of the inconstant Jason consume Esch’s thoughts. Before her in the flesh, the new mother pit bull mirrors Medea’s tragedy, shaking one of her pups to death between her massive jaws. At this, Esch proclaims “Is this what motherhood is?”
Even the storm wears the personification of motherhood, described as “the murderous mother who cut us to the bone.”
Yet Esch’s fond memories of her own mother temper these grisly images. Having died in childbirth, she optimizes tenderness, wisdom, and sacrifice.
Salvage the Bones is a gritty, layered novel. From poverty and tragedy arise a truly stalwart protagonist. Esch’s observations about life reach far beyond her age, and her actions model both bravery and resilience. Even against the backdrop of one of the worst disasters in recent history, Esch’s story underscores the indomitable bonds of family and the beautiful complexity of love.
Fraught with lyricism and symbolism, Salvage the Bones is the best book I’ve read this year.