Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.
I decided to read Ward's Men We Reaped before I knew it was a memoir. I loved her novel, Salvage the Bones, her newest book has a long waiting list at the library, and a friend loaned this one to me on vacation, so all the stars aligned. I'm somewhat wary of memoirs written by 35 year-olds; obviously it's possible to be a talented, insightful writer at that age (and much younger), but memoir seems like it should be reserved for a longer angle lens than 35 years allows. The exception, for me at least, is when the author has a compelling story to tell--something different and divergent enough to warrant reflection. Ward manages to do the opposite and succeed wildly; she tells a story that is all too common and normalized, but she does it with grace, wisdom, and the same novelistic style that made Salvage the Bones such a pleasure to read. Ward's memoir centers around the loss of five men in her life--to violence, drugs, and poverty--and the horrifying regularity with which these losses occur.

Ward consciously weaves forward and backwards in time, so the ghosts of her lost loved ones reappear after their deaths have happened in vignettes and snippets and memory. Her writing is beautiful and sweeping, her sentences tumble into each other even when she is describing crippling sorrow. She is a gripping writer, and the heartbreak of her story only makes it that much more compelling.

I read this soon after reading Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's A Kind of Freedom, and I wish I'd read it closer to Salvage the Bones. New Orleans and its surrounding towns are a part of the country I have little context for, especially when it comes to poor, overlooked communities. This helped set some of that context for me and gave depth to both of those novels after the fact.

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