Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Salvage the Bones

Summary: A stunning new voice from the Gulf Coast delivers a gritty but tender novel about family and poverty in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel's framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family-motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce-pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real. -- Bloomsbury

SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward has won numerous awards including the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. So when I was offered the opportunity to receive a copy of this novel, I jumped at the chance. Despite reading quite a few books each year, it seems like I rarely read "award-winning" ones; and I decided that I needed to see for myself just how good SALVAGE THE BONES was.

I can honestly say that SALVAGE THE BONES was an excellent novel. The writing is nothing short of spectacular and the story is intense. But does that mean that I enjoyed reading this novel? That's an entirely different question. I appreciated this novel and what I think it accomplished, but it was a very difficult read for me. I'm still teetering as to my overall opinions/feelings about this book. I think my opinion is that it was a great piece of literature, but I'm not sure I liked it all that much. Does that even make sense?

SALVAGE THE BONES tells the story of Esch and her family in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Even without the pending storm, Esch's family life isn't great. Her mother died during childbirth and her father is an alcoholic who is not really involved in his children's lives. Esch and her three brothers try to fend for themselves and do the best they can, but their situation is extremely sad. As the storm approaches, Esch's family is trying to stockpile food, prepare their house, and basically just survive despite very bleak odds.

I could rave about the writing in SALVAGE THE BONES like so many other reviews, but suffice to say that Ms. Ward is an extremely talented writer. I can't really add anything that hasn't already been said about this book, so I'm going to discuss how this novel affected me. SALVAGE THE BONES was a very difficult read for me and it made me extremely uncomfortable. I would think that my reaction wasn't that dissimilar from other readers, but I'm not sure I liked how this book made me feel. It delved into so many subjects that are  extremely painful for me to think about including a dysfunctional family, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, dog fighting and extreme poverty.

It's strange, but I can read books about brutal murders (and other disturbing things) and they don't affect me like SALVAGE THE BONES did. I guess that's a testament to the author. She created a very sad, but real, family, and then showed how they struggled each and every day. By choosing to show their plight in the twelve days leading to Hurricane Katrina, she showed an even more desperate picture of their lives; and it just broke my heart and made me want to weep.

One of the truly outstanding things about SALVAGE THE BONES was how the author created the tension surrounding the approaching storm. The story became more frantic as Katrina came closer to shore and I felt as if the pace of the novel similarly increased. Personally, I know I was reading the novel at a faster pace as the story neared its climax. This might sound weird, but I noticed that I was shaking as I read this book. It is one very powerful story!

I have to warn readers that SALVAGE THE BONES isn't for the faint-hearted. I felt as if much of this novel was raw and gritty, and it was brutal in its honesty. I don't know what affected me more -- what the family was doing to keep afloat or the dog-fighting scenes. Ms. Ward has a skill for bringing characters and scenes to life and it's because of her outstanding ability to describe even the smallest detail. Having said that, her descriptions of the dog-fighting were extremely graphic, and I have a feeling that animal lovers should brace themselves before picking up this book.

SALVAGE THE BONES would make an outstanding book club selection. There is so much to discuss from the writing, to the characters, to the effects of Hurricane Katrina on its victims. Some of the other topics you might want to explore include grief, loss, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, family dynamics, and love. This novel would be fascinating to talk about, but it probably won't be the "funnest" meeting that you'll ever attend.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this novel.


Serena said...

I've heard this is a tough read and have shied away from it for my own personal reasons....but I'm glad to see that the writing is what it ought to be.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm with Serena! I'm too wimpy to read this!

Sandy Nawrot said...

A blogger friend of mine (I'm not even going to throw out names at this point) did not like this book at all. Not because of the writing, but how it made her feel. And apparently the author had words for her. Awkward. I myself have a hard time separating myself from good writing that makes me feel awful. I love Lionel Shriver, but I couldn't give "We Need to Talk About Kevin" a five star because it made me feel so totally horrible. If you add into this one DOG-FIGHTING??? Can't handle it.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this is a very powerful book. I think I'll have to be in the right mood to try it.

Ann Summerville said...

I totally understand what you are saying. The Lovely Bones was recommended to me by numerous people, but after the opening I couldn't continue reading although it was very well written.

ChaosIsAFriendOfMine said...

One thing I liked about this book is that it answered the question, "Why didn't everyone just evacuate?" that came up so many times after Hurricane Katrina. It's hard for us to imagine in our middle class world that yes, it was literally impossible for a lot of people to evacuate.

Anonymous said...

There were aspects of this book that I liked, but overall it was very gritty for me and I'm not sure I can overall endorse the read. The dogfighting thing just broke my heart and made me incapable of falling into the "love" category with the book. But I can appreciate its beauty and the fact that the author really is a talented writer.