Reading a distinct artistic voice remains one my great pleasures. Even if I know ahead of time that the writer's voice and acclaim precedes him/her the surprise of the journey through the novel stays with me for a long time. Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent grabbed me like that--so did Kerouac's On the Road--along with McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Rand's Atlas Shrugged; Robinson's Housekeeping; Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day; de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince...and so on.
This morning I read Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones in one sitting--just under five hours. Ward is an artist--make no bones about it. The novel builds in subtle intensity and hits its stride just past the halfway mark--I physically felt the anxiety and squirmed with impatience to read through the next page. I had to slow myself down, however, so that I did not miss the joy of her craft beyond the story. The layering of language is unlike anything I've read recently.
The first thing I want to share is that this is a love story. The layers of love, some frayed, some broken, some deep, just dominates the subtext of each page--from the mother's final words, to the father never changing the bedroom, to the photographs dad kept, to way Skeet attends to China (the pitbull), to what the protagonist craves from Manny, to what Manny will never give her, to the protagonist's coming to grips with what is growing inside of her, the love of the father for his children, to the love extended by neighbors after Hurricane Katrina hits, to final images and moments in novel when Big Henry extends his love for the unborn child, to Skeet sitting and watching and waiting...
This is a brilliant study and journey of love.
And sadly, I will not put it in my 8th grade classroom because of the mature nature of some of the scenes. I don't hold it against the book or author by any means, and perhaps I shouldn't be so cautious with a beautiful book, but it's just the world we live in now, which is a shame...but that is another story. However, this does not in anyway reflect on the book. I make the point of it here to illustrate the power between these pages. This novel is a shared experience--I defy you to read it and put it and down and pass it off and out of your memory. You can't do it.
The raw beauty Ward etches into the reader can be traced to her command of nuance within the severity of the subject matter.
My personal loathing and discomfort for dog fighting should have triggered my hands to clap the book closed. Hey, I can't even watch Marley and Me.
However, I didn't close the book until I read through to the final page.
A strong case can be made that this story belongs to the main pit bull in the story, China. To a certain degree, this is her story. Used as a pawn on the surface, the reader slowly discovers that the money China earns from birthing pups because she is a legendary fighter will go to this family (it's what they do--it is a part of the culture) barely making it on Ramen noodles and eggs found around their property.
Additionally, and most relevant, China's owner loves her and she loves him back--I'm convinced of it. It is hard to imagine making a main character a dog who doesn't speak--so, Ward gives us Esche, the only significant female in the story who isn't killed off. We live the story through Esche and while she has the arc and she experiences change and the story runs through her, I have to argue that much of the same can be said about China. China's journey, in many ways, mirrors Esche's.
I'm a new and enormous fan of Ward and Salvage the Bones. Through some raw and gritty subject matter she grabbed my bones and wrung them out for just over four straight hours until I was left with nothing but empathy.
In my heart I know what happened to China.
And it is just devastating to walk away from the final page of the book...because I also know I'm going to carry it with me for a long time.