Portrait by Beowulf Sheehan. Cover art by Jaya Miceli.
One of the most well-written books I’ve read in a while, Ms. Ward manages to portray multiple complex characters. She weaves in topics including the intermingling of past and present, grief, guilt-ridden choices based on compassion and love, family love and family neglect, addiction, inter-racial relationships, systemic trauma and the afterlife, and placed all that in the context of a coming-of-age story centered around a young boy. Just writing this list leaves me even more amazed.
The prevailing feeling I had while reading this book was sadness and yet, I didn’t end the book’s journey feeling depressed or hopeless. A theme of fortitude and love throughout carried me through as I read it, and made it feel so much like life. This is a story that has a definite ending, but yet, leaves with unknowns, where you can imagine a retelling or a different story with a different point, where the end would fall someplace else on the timeline.
That is the art that makes it feel like the flow of life, in contrast to stories where every loose end is tied up for you in a nice neat little bow. Don’t get me wrong- I enjoy those types of novels sometimes, too. But it is a real art to be able to have a complex ending with shades of grey. I highly recommend this masterpiece of a book, and at the same time, I advise that you pick it up when you are in a good solid place emotionally.
To learn a little about the author, here is a quote from Wikipedia:
Jesmyn Ward (born April 1, 1977) is an American novelist and an associate professor of English at Tulane University. She won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for her second novel Salvage the Bones and won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction for her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. She also received a 2012 Alex Award for the story about familial love and community in facing Hurricane Katrina. She is the only woman and only African American to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice.