Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

This story is narrated by Esch Batiste, aged 15 and the second youngest child of a black scrap-dealer in a small Louisiana town near the Mississippi River delta.  She has two older brothers, Randall aged 17, and Skeetah, aged 16. Junior, the youngest at 8, survived childbirth, but their mother didn’t, and the family has not managed well without her: each carry their own memories of her loving ways and try to exist on them like a precious food that will soon run out, and they each have their defences against the harshness of their existence, Randall in his athleticism and the hope that he will eventually be eligible for a free school basketball training camp which could lead to a college scholarship, and Skeetah to make money for the family by breeding pups from his beloved pitbull, China.

Esch loves to learn and reads prodigiously, particularly the Myths of Greece, and one story, that of Jason and Medea, strikes her as having a similar parallel to her own hopeless yearnings for Randall’s best friend Manny.  The person most adrift is their Daddy, unmanned and helpless without his life’s partner. He turns inward and away from his children, giving the new baby entirely into their inexperienced care; for the next eight years he puts food on the table but very little else. His heart has turned to stone.

Despite their poverty, the Batiste children still have their goals and aspirations - until& terrible unplanned events wreck their hopes: they are floored by fate’s cruelty and don’t believe that things could get any worse – until they do, with their father bedridden by an awful, fluky accident, and Hurricane Katrina about to hit the Louisiana coast. Ms. West’s account of the Hurricane alone is stark and terrible: we are there trying to shield ourselves in our pathetic little shelter from the howling, roaring wind and waterfalls of rain; we are completely given over to our gutclenching fear in the face of such a huge, elemental power, and watch in terrified disbelief as the water floods our mean little dwelling and threatens to drown us all. I cannot remember when I last read such splendid prose.

Ms. West is a true wordsmith; she paints compelling, unforgettable pictures with her beautiful language and her characters are so strong and true that I didn’t want her lovely book to end, for despite the parallels to Greek tragedy, the story ends on a triumphantly hopeful note: the Batistes and their friends survive, and they survive because they love each other enough to make all the right sacrifices. They now have even less than before, but what they have gained is immeasurable.


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