Jesmyn Ward may be one of my new woman crushes. It helps that I got a chance to meet her recently when she came to D.C. for a book reading a signing. She read from Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book I read and enjoyed. I didn’t get a chance to write a full review of it, however, and I refuse to make that mistake for Ward’s Salvage the Bones. This book makes you feel something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but it feels palpable and real. Maybe it was the small details that made the characters people that I recognized in my own life, from my own girlhood in Savannah, GA. The boys with towels on their heads. The brothers who fought for their sisters. The girls who look for love in a place where love can’t live. The boys who want you but don’t want you. The men who have flaws, even alcoholism, but love their families.
While Sing, Unburied, Sing was steeped in magic realism, Salvage the Bones is steeped only in realism. But don’t get me wrong—there is still magic here. The way that Ward makes you see past the layers of detracting descriptors to who a person is, who they love, what they carry…that is nothing short of magic. All of the characters in this novel could be written off in a line. Alcoholic. Unemployed. Dog fighter. Poor. Black. Teenage mom. Fat. Motherless. But they are more than that, and Ward makes us see it.
At Ward’s book reading, someone asked her a question about the strong sibling relationships that she tends to sketch out in her novels, and having only read two books by her, I can see that theme. But what interests me more is the way that she fills in the lines of the life of a motherless child. In this novel, the children at its center are truly motherless, after their mother died in childbirth (unfortunately, a reality that is all too common for Black women, especially poor ones). In Sing, Unburied, Sing, the main character was the son of a teenage mother who left in motherless in other ways than death. This novel is very much about motherhood, as the main character discovers her own pregnancy, and her brother’s dog (very much a character of the book as well) gives birth to her first litter. The main characters’ motherlessness only makes the new and impending motherhood that more discernible.
Ward is a beautiful lyricist whose attention to detail in scenes that she obviously knows well is impeccable, but where she really shines is by shifting the plot in ways that are as important as they are imperceptible. I almost read past the line that revealed that the impending hurricane was Katrina without registering what that could mean for this family. And there is a payoff towards the very end that comes in the slightest, but realest, of ways regarding Esch’s interactions with Big Henry that made my spirit smile. This is one of my favorite books this year.