The world is an ugly place at the moment. There seems to be hatred everywhere. I find myself needing to turn off the outside and find other worlds. I read.
This review of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones may contain spoilers, but this is not a book of suspense. From the onset, it is clear something uncompromising is coming. It’s Katrina – and no one will emerge unscathed. Salvage the Bones has waited on my TBR list for too many years. It was the title that hooked me, promising tragedy and poetry. I hope this review will do justice to Ward’s writing. I finally listened to it as an eAudio book, and it was one of those transformative experiences eerie to experience alone – an aural connection that taps straight into you. Cherise Boothe does an amazing job as a voice artist. I am always impressed as to how a performer can seamlessly don the voice/skin of everyone from a teenage narrator, to macho young men, to children, without a trace of the comical.
Salvage the Bones is the story of Esch Batiste (listening to audio only, I thought for the longest time her name was ‘Ash’, pronounced with an accent), the only girl in a family of five: herself, three brothers, and their widowed, alcoholic father. Esch, only fifteen years old, black, poor, and female – is pregnant, and her story looms tragic and unfair from the beginning.
The Batistes lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. As Olivia Laing says in her apt review: “it takes a while to realise how deprived these motherless children are. Details seep out like involuntary revelations”. It was only after certain passages that the extent of the family’s impoverishment hits home. As a narrator Esch is not self-pitying. I love Esch, her strength and bravery. She needs them to survive a gritty, masculine environment. There is a poignant sadness in the likelihood of her intelligence being wasted in the Pit – the Batiste family’s land, even the name tells of a place mined out and left fallow – and in teenage motherhood. Her voice is melodic, and speaks of beauty in places that seem ugly on the surface. Even without the official label, Bois – like so many places – still bears the hallmarks of racial segregation. Yet Salvage the Bones treats this subtly, it is not a soapbox book. It is better than that.
Family dynamics in Salvage the Bones are breathlessly touching. Ward describes Junior, the youngest in the family, with incredible tenderness and loving detail. It was in the aftermath of his birth that the family was left motherless. The opening scenes depict the visceral reality of birth and family. Middle-brother Skeetah’s beloved pitbull China giving birth to puppies evokes Esch’s recollection of Junior’s birth – the ripping, tearing destruction that new life brings. This is the price of womanhood, a burden both Esch and the canine China bear.
Esch’s attitude to sex is one of currency. It is payment. As the only female in the Pit, amongst her brothers’ friends, she is subject to other expectations. There is a gut-wrenching moment when she describes how it is easier to let it happen (not that she is a passive player) than to have a reason not to. Yet she alone will carry the ensuing burden – not just the pregnancy, but the labels attached to a young woman having sex with multiple partners. As with China, to be female means to have the demands of men thrust upon you (China is used for breeding). China possesses an outward strength Esch seems to envy, perhaps due to Skeetah’s love for her. For Esch’s older brother, the dog becomes a surrogate mother, child, lover, weapon.
That last word forms a problematic element for me in Salvage the Bones. This is the context: every week I volunteer at an animal shelter. Though it is in a relatively privileged area, there are instances where I have come across fighting and bait dogs. These dogs are damaged, used as little more than objects for the profit or pleasure of men. They are scarred, wounded, traumatised. Sometimes they are rehabilitated – but often they are so dog-aggressive there is no going back. To me, dog fighting represents the very worst of human nature. It is absolute in its brutality and disregard for the life and welfare of the animals involved. But I have been told I have a soft heart and am too sensitive.
Ward does not necessarily depict the young men involved in dog fighting in a sympathetic light. It is their culture, their pastime. They might as well be comparing cars, taking the same pride in their ownership – objects all the same, with which to compete. Rather than drag-racing, these boys and men gather to let loose their dogs, urging them to eviscerate the other. The scene where China, still lactating, nearly has a breast torn off in a pit fight brought me close to vomiting. Ward shows Skeetah adoring China, but he is the one to throw her into the ring.
The day I finished Salvage the Bones I was at the local pool – again, aware of how distant my life is from the Batistes. It was a grey day, climbing into the high thirties, pitching until a storm blustered through. Walking home, wind whipped leaves and dirt into my eyes. The rainwater which we all so desperately waited for was not gentle but fell instead like stinging, pelting stones. I had the dawning realisation of what the storm would be, and that I had completely underestimated it. The horror of Katrina was beyond my understanding until those final chapters. I’d like to think that there is hope at the end of Salvage the Bones, yet a vignette toward the conclusion made me realise my naivety. It was the image of a child crouched in debris, a parent trying to pick through the remains of nothing. The book might end and the movie might fade to black, but there is still more trauma for people beginning again – or beginning with less than nothing, contending with injury, grief and illness. Over a thousand people perished in the 2005 hurricane, and how many more were injured? How much was lost? Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award and damn-well deservedly so.