Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, the area, especially those parts sunk in grinding poverty before the storm's advent, is still recovering. Ward's novel Salvage the Bones, which takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days just before the storm hit, tells the story of one rural hardscrabble family of motherless children as the hurricane bears down on them.

Fifteen year old Esch is the only girl to three brothers. She keeps an occasional eye on baby brother Junior, whose difficult birth killed their mother, she watches older brother Randall play basketball knowing that all his hopes ride on his lovingly honed skill, and she helps her brother Skeetah as he loves and cares for his pure white pit bull China and the valuable litter she's borne. But the careless love that Esch finds amongst her brothers and from her alcoholic father isn't enough and she grasps for a deeper love through casual sex with anyone who asks. When she finds herself pregnant by Manny, her brother's friend, she dares to dream that this boy was not just using her and that she will be important and loved.

The novel takes place over the week leading up to Katrina with each chapter encompassing one day. The feel of the novel is atmospheric and the heavy, foreboding heat pushing ahead of the storm pulses through the narrative, smothering any directed action. Each of the characters acts as if in slow motion, blanketed by the muted concern of the rising, oppressive weather. They are all used to living in grim poverty and quiet desperation is a daily reality in their lives. The disappointments visited on the family serve only to grind them down: Randall isn't given a scholarship spot at the expensive basketball camp, Skeetah must watch helplessly as China's pups die slowly, and Esch realizes her worth in Manny's eyes. The writing is raw and resigned. It is graphic, especially during the pit bull fight scenes. And yet, there is an undercurrent of caring and solidarity too that defies the brooding, hopelessness of their lives. The narrative tension is masterfully controlled, rising as Katrina herself builds and hurls towards the coast and to her date with this already disadvantaged family. Not an easy read, sometimes rife with nightmarish quality, Salvage the Bones doesn't herald the end but a new beginning clawed out of the wreckage and smothering red clay coating everything in the wake of the hurricane.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. The pit bull fight would be difficult to read. Sounds like a timely book with setting in Miss. after the hurricane.

  2. I've read a lot about this book over the past year but your review is the one that makes me want to pick it up and read it. Thanks!

  3. Oh boy I do want to read this one. You make it sound so good.

  4. I thought this was a fantastic read. Sad, powerful and hopeful as well

    The Relentless Reader

  5. The parts about China were both my favourite parts and the most painful parts: such a powerful story!


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