Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 30 2011
“Salvage the Bones,” the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather. It’s an old story — of family honor, revenge, disaster — and it’s a good one. As Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” And Jesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood.
Paradise Found: PW talks with Rebecca Solnit
In A Paradise in Hell, Solnit surveys responses to disasters and discovers that people finding meaning—even exhilaration—in healing and rebuilding their communities.
What constitutes a disaster? Does the current economic crisis qualify?
It’s a question of scale. Disaster scholars distinguish an emergency—an incident such as a building burning down—from a disaster, which is a regional disruption like Hurricane Katrina. Of course, there are always complications—9/11 directly affected a small part of lower Manhattan, but disrupted the global economy and was used to make major foreign policy shifts. Economic crises can resemble sudden physical disasters—notably in the questioning of the status quo: the Argentinean economic crash of 2001 functioned like a disaster in catalyzing positive change, including a rebirth of civil society. Iceland has had a similar rebirth since its October 2008 economic crash, and in this country, we are seeing interesting improvisation and radicalization around the depression, and I expect we’ll see a lot more.
Why do you think survivors of disasters are depicted as victims even when (as you point out) their testimonies argue so vigorously to the contrary?