Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for some time, I remember when it was first published it was widely read by  bloggers, it won a National Book Award in the US and it is covered in esteemed comments from reviews within many well-known media titles.

“Beautifully written … A powerful depiction of grinding poverty, where somehow, amid the deprivation, the flame of filial affection survives and a genuine spirit of community is able to triumph over everything the system and nature can throw at it.” DAILY MAIL

I decided to read it now before her new novel comes out in November, Sing Unburied Sing (already on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction) and because with all the hurricanes and storms acting out currently, a novel set in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, seemed timely.

It’s a novel about a family struggling to stay together under already challenging circumstances, about to become even more trying with a grade 5 hurricane heading their way. It is set (as is the new novel) in a fictional, rural coastal town named Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  Interestingly, the French edition of the novel is called Bois Sauvage, meaning Wild Wood, the author playing with the world savage and salvage, connected to the theme of survival.

It’s narrated from the point of view of fifteen year old Esch, the only girl in the family, their mother died after the long and difficult birth of Junior when she was eight years old. The children have adapted to living without their mother, though Esch is vulnerable in this all male environment which attracts other males, despite the protection of her brothers. She is becoming a woman, without another to guide her, and men who don’t know how to. Her only female reference is within the romantic tragic classic she is reading, referred to often throughout the text, the tragic anti-heroine Medea. Esch too is blinded by love and fearful of its outcome.

“In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.”

The father is an alcoholic and although that seems dire, the children are familiar with his habits and behaviours and seem to manage to keep out of his way when they need to and to care for him when he is a danger to himself.

For most of the novel the father is unable to do anything, he is either absent, asleep or suffering from an accident that  further reduces his ability to manage his role as father. Despite this, he pays attention to the preparations for the hurricane and even if he can’t do things himself, he doesn’t give up giving instructions to his children, the one thing he won’t fail at is to keep them safe.

The other main narrative concerns the plight of one of the son’s Skeetah’s prize pit bull China, who has given birth to pups that are extremely valuable, though nothing is more valuable to him than her, he rarely leaves her side, except to get food or medicine for her or her pups. It is a struggle for him to care for them all and the approaching hurricane will test his loyalty.

In all, the strongest feeling I am left with in reflecting on this novel is the effect of the mother and of the attempt by nearly all in this situation to act like her. The children prepare food and Esch’s thoughts often linger to nurturing thoughts, a sense that magnifies as her body begins to respond to the life she carries within it.

Although the mother is never present, her memory is held strong by Esch and fiercely through Skeetah, in his protection of China and her pups, Junior clammers for attention and affection, never having known her. They hold strong to how she made them feel and recognise that after the devastation, they can salvage what’s left and continue.

Medea is both the maiden and the mother, tender and vulnerable to love, fierce in her protection, loyal to her siblings and devastating in her revenge, she is the storm. She is the anti-thesis to the mother Esch remembers, but important for her survival, a warning against falling too far, while recognising how destabilising the emotions can be. Ward isn’t trying to recreate a version of Medea’s story, she uses it as reference, one that causes Esch to contemplate what is happening around her, even if it doesn’t always modify her behaviour, the emotions are too strong. Ultimately Medea will guide her.

As Esch, Randall and Junior walk through the debris after the hurricane has passed Esch picks up a piece of coloured glass, marbled blue and white and another that is red and a pink brick stone, remnants in the aftermath. Their friend Big Henry reminds her that he too will be there for them and it is a poignant moment for Esch, who squeezes the remnants tight in her hand:

“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 and 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 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.”

Though it took me a while to read it, this is a book that stays with you, that continues to work on the reader long after the water has receded. It is a lament to the lone motherless adolescent and her siblings, to the courage of victims of natures destructive forces, to the ability of survivors to regroup, find solidarity, to continue, to the destabilising highs and lows of young love. And to universal themes and heroines of the classics, the stories we turn to, that ask and answer life’s questions, challenge us, inspire us. I’m looking forward to reading her next book.

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s works?

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Man Booker Prize 2017 Winner #GeorgeSaunders

Yesterday the winner of the Man Booker 2017 was announced, and the prize went to:

Of the shortlisted titles, I’d only read one Exit West and I keep promising to finally read a book by Ali Smith,but that hasn’t happened yet. I was a little intrigued by Lincoln in the Bardo, but put off by the hype and an air of assuredness in the media of it winning; it was the British bookies favourite and although it is his first full length novel, he is an accomplished, bestselling author in the US.

Having listened to Baroness Young speak about how they came to their decision in this video, I am back in ‘intrigue’ mode and thinking, I really would like to know this one from the inside. It’s worth listening to the video, as she also mentions the obstacles some readers might encounter, an admirable admission, as not all award winning literary fiction is as accessible to the reader as one might imagine.

Comments below are extracted from the Man Booker website:

Lola, Baroness Young, 2017 Chair of judges, comments:

‘The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.’

Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on a single night in the life of Abraham Lincoln: an actual moment in 1862 when the body of his 11-year-old son was laid to rest in a Washington cemetery.

Strangely and brilliantly, Saunders activates this graveyard with the spirits of its dead. The Independent described the novel as ‘completely beguiling’, praising Saunders for concocting a ‘narrative like no other: a magical, mystery tour of the bardo – the “intermediate” or transitional state between one’s death and one’s next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism.’

Meanwhile, the Guardian wrote that, ‘the short story master’s first novel is a tale of great formal daring…[it] stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.’

Saunders told TIME magazine that he didn’t really want to write about Lincoln,

‘but was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instil the same reaction I’d had all those years ago.’

So have you read this novel, or if not, are you tempted by it? Did you have another favourite to win?

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious t me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.