Sunday, July 8, 2012
Review of Salvage the Bones
The short of it: the best book of 2011, a stirring evocation of race, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones should have won the Pulitzer.
The long of it: This is a lean, lyrical and visceral work, but what I truly admired was how skillfully Ward weaves the vicious Greek myth of Medea into Esch's thoughts, her unrequited love for Manny, father of the child she carries. Mythos--the world of spirit and legend--is one of the four pillars that Aristotle said supports great drama, and it's one often neglected in contemporary literature. (The other three are ethos, pathos, and logos.) I won't say much more here, but just want to log in two of my favorite quotes from the novel:
"The sun will not show. It must be out there, over the furious hurricane beating itself against the coastline like China at the tin door of her shed when she wants to go out and Skeet will not let her. But here on the Pit, we are caught in the hour where the sun is hidden beyond the trees but hasn't escaped over the horizon, when it is coming and going, when light comes from everywhere and nowhere, when everything is gray.
"I lie awake and cannot see anything but that baby, the baby I have formed whole in my head, a black Athena, who reaches for me. Who gives me that name as if it is mine: Mama. I swallow salt. That voice, ringing in my head, is drowned out by a train letting out one long, high blast. And then it disappears, and there is only the sound of the wind like a snake big enough to swallow the world sliding against the mountains. And then the wind like a train again, and the house creaks. I curl into a ball.
"Did you hear that?"
It is Skeetah; I can barely see him. He is only a wash of greater darkness that moves in the dark opening of the hallway" (Ward 219).
"I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes" (Ward 255).
In those two quotes you see the weaving of myth, the motifs of snakes and mothers, puppies and babies, and all of it wrapped in this fierce and violent world, every bit alive.