book review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

The backstory: Jesmyn West's second novel Salvage the Bones is a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award and a finalist for the 2012 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The basics: Salvage the Bones is the story of Esch, a pregnant fourteen-year-old girl in New Orleans in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Since her mother died, Esch helps care for her alcoholic father and three brothers. Much of the action also focuses on China, the pet pit bull who gives birth as the novel opens.

My thoughts: When the National Book Award finalists were first announced, I had heard the most about Salvage the Bones (of the three I had not read.) Two bloggers whose opinions I trust, Audra at Unabridged Chick and Heather at Raging Bibliomania, liked it but found the subject matter quite difficult. As someone who lacks an affinity for dogs and is downright afraid of aggressive dogs, I was curious  how the focus on pit bull fighting would work for me. In short: I wanted more Esch and less of the dogs.

Jesmyn West does not hold back in this novel. It is a raw, gritty and humanizing tale. Here, Esch describes why she has sex:
"And it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop, easier to let him inside than push him away, easier than hearing him ask me, Why not? It was easier to keep quiet and take it than to give him an answer."
Esch finds fascination and often strength in the story of Medea, which is a personal favorite of mine (I loved it when I read it, but then I got to see Phylicia Rashad play Medea, I loved it even more.) West continuously uses Esch's focus on Medea to point out the correlations between ancient Greece and modern day New Orleans. These correlations proved to be my favorite parts of the novel.

Favorite passage: "She is calm and self-possessed as a housecat; it is the way that all girls who only know one boy move. Centered as if the love that boy feels for them anchors them deep as a tree’s roots, holds them still as the oaks, which don’t uproot in hurricane wind. Love as certainty."

The verdict: Overall, I found the action uneven. I wanted more character action and less descriptions of the dogs. West painted a scene of one fractured family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, but I wish it were more focused on Esch than the supporting characters. The other characters were strong, but I wanted more Esch. She's a dynamic, troubled woman, and she continues to fascinate me.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: August 30, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Buy Salvage the Bones from Amazon in print or for the Kindle.

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  1. You know, I think that the book would have been very different had there been more focus on Esch and not the dogs, and that is a perspective that I couldn't see before reading your review. The subplot about the dogs really bothered me, and made me unable to really dig deeply into Esch's story with the intensity that it deserved, and now that you have identified this to me, I am wondering more about the book, when previously I just wanted to forget all about it. Fantastic review today! You really got my brain churning!

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  3. Great review of a book I do not think I could handle on a couple of levels. :)

  4. I totally have to echo Heather's comments -- you nailed exactly what I wanted from this novel and, like Heather, since you named what didn't work, you've got me curious again about it rather than desperate for brain bleach! This is why I love my book blogger friends -- I get so much out reading other reviews.

  5. I really loved this is a contender for my best books of 2011 list...but I can see where the dog fighting disturbed readers (it disturbed me too). That said, I do think it was an important part of the book - not so much for the fighting, but for China who was so symbolic of the fight for survival which all the characters were in...Esch included. Esch was definitely the character who I cared the most about...I would like to know how it all turns out for her.

    Terrific review of this book, Carrie!

  6. forgot to subscribe to follow up comments!

  7. @Zibilee -- I love the power of reviews to make me rethink a novel. Your review of The Night Circus certainly did that for me recently too!

    @Andi - Understood.

    @Audra -- Thanks!

    @Wendy -- That's a great point about China as a metaphor. I did appreciate how much Esch saw of herself in China, and I think it added another layer of tragedy to the story.

  8. Another blogger sent me her copy of this one. She was not able to read it and wondered how I'd do with it since I don't seem to mind the darker stuff. I have yet to crack it open but it will probably be after the holidays. We'll see.


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