My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sometimes it can be difficult to read such a precious book and maintain the facade of being a film critic at the same time. Something delicate can be hard to break, and for me, I felt guilt while reading this lovely minor novel from the MFA Grad Jesmyn Ward.
I make a dinstinction here, because as the back of the cover assures me, Mrs. Ward is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program, which seems to take all precedent of her little bio, never mind the fact that she has published another novel before this one. Why such the great lengths to impress with a title when her works should suffice?
Their is a current in the writing realm today, which is that one cannot be published unless one pursues a higher education, as if the only road to success and fame runs through the university. Never mind that Hemingway travelled to Italy to serve as a Paramedic during the great first war, or that Jane Austen so bravely defied the odds of winding up in a loveless marriage. So why does Ward, who assures us lived through the tragic Hurrican Katrine, hide behind a degree when her life should stand up to snuff?
Sure, the novel is a fine read. The prose is choppy and awkward, but perhaps that is an exterior reflection of our protragonist’s Esch’s inner turmoil and poor upbringing. I digress.
The novel feels lovely, close in vein to the voice of the little girl narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps it’s influence a little to felt in the sauce of this recipe. And yet as I read the little voice grew inside me, overcoming me, and drawing my affection. I could really sense Esh’s spirit while reading, and that is no small feat.
Ward has a firm sense of voice, which I would argue is her main strength. She succeeds at capturing her main protagonist so well that it’s hard to get out of her head. And while this is something I respect, I find that it often was distracting. I had a foggy sense of the other characters around Esch, especially of her brothers Skeeter, Junior, and Randall. Why do the men that seem to be so important to her life feel like hollow sketches, and worse, shadows upon a wall?
Perhaps this solipsistic approach is a larger example of what we might as well dub ’empathatic narratives’, a way of forcing us to see the world the way our narrator has chosen to. And yet I feel lost in this technique, unsure of what I should take away from it. I felt a sadness for Esch, her own sexuality forced upon her at such a young age, as if she was incapable of expressing love without submitting to the sexual demand violent man children.
And yet, despite my own feelings of shortcoming, their is a quiet strength about her. The way she carries herself in the presence of strong male figures, her steel determination of surviving the hurricane, and her own introspection. Their is a longing here, and I sense she must have grown up quite a bit since the time frame during which this novel has taken place.
There’s some minor critiques here. The ending feels jammed onto a story that is about something larger. About the absence of a mother, about a child learning to be a man when she should be embracing her womanhood. About men who don’t know how to live with a woman. And perhaps, above all, this is the start of something more magnificent. I wish Ward all the success in the world, I just hope she realizes an award isn’t it.