Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Review published on May 10, 2018.

This is Ward’s second novel, which tells the tale of an impoverished rural Mississippi black family that struggle to get by. It relays their lives, the days preceding storm Katrina and their preparations to survive in order to deal with its aftermath.

It is incredibly poignant and humbling to read. Since the loss of the mother, the father and the children have struggled to cope. Esch is the protagonist, doing her best as a teenage girl to stay clear of their drunken father and keep the peace between her two brothers.

So poor are they living in their junk-strewn land that they are unaware of the abhorrent poverty they live in – with feral squirrel a mainstay meal, perhaps eating once per day, their beds infested with things that bite, and a blighted place to live. The only thing of value in their lives is Skeetah’s pitbull, China, that he fights. Much is written about his relationship with the dog and the fighting scenes are boldly described and hard to read. I quite enjoy a gory read, but the protracted depiction of this was wearing due to its discomfort.

Esch becomes pregnant, in part because she finds it easier to let boys have sex with her than to spurn their perpetual advances, but she is also looking for love and attention; she just doesn’t see it. But she hides her pregnancy for fear of her father’s wrath. It is sad in that they have very few friends to speak of. Their family is mainly all they have. Still they manage to cherish what is important and dear. The prose is powerful and unflinching. The story overall is haunting, but for me with a few stalls in the cadence of the writing that made it, at intermittent times, feel a little drawn out. However, it is very clear why this is award winning.

Sara Garland 4/5

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury Publishing 9781408897720 pbk Nov 2017

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