Ward’s first novel is a ten-day countdown to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, seen through the eyes of Esch. She lives in her Daddy’s house with one older brother Skeetah, and two younger brothers Randall and Junior, on a plot of land that also contains another run down house which was her grandparents’ place, a load of junk motors, a make-do kennel for China, her brother’s fighting and breeding pitbull, some rough woodland and a ‘pit’ that fills with water depending on the rainfall, which they sometimes use as a swimming hole. Their mother died giving birth to Junior.
Having read her memoir, Men We Reaped, it is east to see the source structure and location for much of this novel, but it is what she does with that and the manner she does it, that makes this debut stand out. It is visceral, urgent and breathless. Esch lost her virginity at 12, because it was easier than putting up a fight and continued to have a fluid relationship with boundaries and appropriate behaviour. She finds herself, to her horror, pregnant while still in her mid-teens. She tries to hide it, tries to deny it in the all-male environment in which she lives. All the while she dotes on an older boy, one of her brother’s friends, who ignores her except when he wants he wants sex. All Esch wants is for him to look at her.
All this time Randall, a stand-out school basketball star has a trial, while China, Skeetah’s dog, gives birth for the first time and struggles to undertake motherhood to her litter. As the dog fatally attacks one of her newborn, Esch leans in, “China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?”
Daddy is an uncommunicative drunk; he is either drunk, getting drunk or hungover. Perhaps this is why no one listens as he Cassandras warnings about the ferocity of the coming storm. He is obsessed with panelling shut the windows, stocking up food supplies and making sure that he has a full tank of gas in the tractor to enable the escape, when the time comes.
The actual arrival and duration of the inundation, is devastatingly told and put me in mind of the flood in DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The aftermath is of understated horror and a brutal disconnection from their past.
It is a gaping wound of a novel, full of energy and wonderful language, describing a harsh reality.