When the finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction were announced last month, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was among those critics grumbling about the obscurity of some of the authors (Andrew Krivak?), even some of the publishers (Lookout Books?). Partly, I was annoyed that novels I’ve adored this year (“Doc,” “State of Wonder”) didn’t make the cut, and partly I was operating under the time-tested prejudice that books I’ve read are always better than books I haven’t read.
But one of the judges, a writer named Victor LaValle, whose critical opinions I admire, fired off a refreshingly assertive retort to people like me in Publishers Weekly. Denying that he and his fellow judges had ignored popular novels in hopes of making the public “eat their spinach,” he said, “These five books worked some special kind of magic on us. In the end, what’s any good reader really hoping for? That spark. That spell.”
I’m happy to eat my words. And my spinach. I’ve just read another one of the so-called obscure finalists, “Salvage the Bones,” the second book from Alabama writer Jesmyn Ward, and it’ll be a long time before its magic wears off.
This trim, fiercely poetic novel takes place in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Miss., in the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The way that approaching storm compresses this story about devoted siblings recalls Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Lark and Termite,” which in 2009 was also a finalist for the National Book Award. But Ward is working on a more elemental level — no mystical sympathies between long-separated people, no kaleidoscopic impressions of the mentally impaired.
On one level, “Salvage the Bones” is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy.
The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect.
She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. As the story opens, Esch realizes she’s pregnant by an older boy named Manny. “He was the sun,” she swoons. A junior in high school with a thirst for books, Esch is devouring Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” vibrating in sympathy with Medea’s boundless passion. “When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her,” Esch says, “I know her.” She laps up the ardor of that fiery myth and continually translates her own unrequited love into the tropes of those ancient stories. “In every one of the Greek’s mythology tales,” she notices, “there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.”
A palpable sense of desire and sorrow animates every page here (and how surprisingly Ward employs the classics). Without her mother, and with a father who moves clumsily along the edge of their lives, Esch is struggling to figure out what love is. Can it be the unyielding ache she feels for a boy who rejects her? Can it be the sense of care she feels for her elfin youngest sibling, who plays among the garbage and rusting trucks in the yard? Or is true love closer to what her older brother Skeetah feels for his pit bull, China?
That relationship between a boy and his dog was the genesis of Ward’s novel, and it remains the most striking aspect of the story. Skeetah’s affection for China shimmers with that transcendent understanding you see sometimes between owners and their animals, and in this case, it’s a bond fraught with contradictory allusions, from “Sounder” to Michael Vick. Skeetah’s entire life revolves around his beloved dog and the five fragile puppies she gives birth to at the opening of the novel. But he also pits China against other dogs in illegal fights that provide the book’s bloodiest scenes. This may be Ward’s most masterful move: her ability to capture the tenderness between a boy and his dog, while also rendering their joint enthusiasm for these vicious fights sickeningly believable.
But to be honest, everything in “Salvage the Bones” sounds believable, even the fantastical climax that most of us only watched from a distance on TV. Ward survived Katrina with her family in De Lisle, Miss., and her description of the storm, the blind terror, the force of wind and water, is filled with visceral panic. What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion. Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” is an odds-on favorite for the National Book Award, partly because it’s the only well-known novel among the finalists, but “Salvage the Bones” has the aura of a classic about it.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
SALVAGE THE BONES
By Jesmyn Ward
261 pp. $24