4 Stars Reviews

Book Review: Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward

Twin brothers Christophe and Joshua are about to graduate high school. Their feelings are mixed; joyful for the freedom they will finally have but apprehensive about how they will manage to make money to enjoy that freedom. Growing up in a poverty-ridden black community in rural Mississippi, the boys have few promising prospects. Gifted a car by their absent mother, they begin driving around the towns surrounding their home of Bois Sauvage, hunting for work. When Joshua gets a job working the docks on the Gulf Coast, Christophe becomes jealous and increasingly desperate to help contribute something to his ageing grandmother, who continues to care for the twins despite her blindness. He turns to his cousin Dunny and to drug-dealing, which widens the growing gulf between himself and his twin, who fears Christophe is veering down a path dangerously similar to that of their addict father, Sandman. Christophe’s choices set both the twins on course to a violent encounter with their father that could forever alter their lives.

Joshua looked at his brother now wiping the glass furiously, muttering and cussing
about the broken defrost in the car, and wish for it to never stop raining, for the rain
to become a biblical flood so that it would wash him not only through space,
but through time, away and back to that day in the beginning of his world.

I’m a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward’s writing. It’s beautiful and lyrical and can make any action sound profound. Where the Line Bleeds was her debut novel yet it was the last novel of hers I read, instead beginning with her sophomore book, Salvage the Bones, which immediately became an all-time favourite of mine. Where the Line Bleeds takes place in the same fictional town, Bois Sauvage, which is based on Ward’s own hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. The characters in her novels spill over into all of her books; it’s a heartwarming surprise to be reading Where the Line Bleeds but be given brief glimpses into the lives of characters I’ve already come to know well through Salvage the Bones. I wonder if I go back to that book now, I’ll see mentions of Christophe and Joshua, whom I wouldn’t have known to be anything other than some more minor characters when initially reading.

Jesmyn Ward writes such incredible prose with clarity that makes the setting and it’s inhabitants come to life. The rural Southern setting is pervasive in all of Ward’s novels, and almost becomes a character in itself. The heat of Mississippi permeates the writing, and you can feel the stifling hot dust as though you yourself are inside the pages. It’s one of my favourite things about Ward’s writing, and why she’s often compared to Faulkner.

The twins are written incredibly well – they’re very similar, as twins often are, yet the subtle distinctions shine through. Ward does an amazing job of balancing their similitude with their differences, ensuring that their twinness doesn’t overshadow their individuality. It eventually becomes easy to distinguish the twins by their tone and mannerisms. Even though the novel probably spends more page-time with Christophe, him being the unemployed of the two, Joshua never feels neglected by the prose. Their individual arcs are treated with equal importance. The characters around them are just as refined, each having a slightly different relationship both Christophe and Joshua, and Ward takes time to develop the relationship between these supporting characters too, such as with Ma-Mee and the twins’ mother Cille, and Cille’s strained history with Sandman. Everyone is fully actualised, which is important given how hugely character-driven the novel is.

The reliance on characters rather than plot meant that the pacing may be a little slow for some. Having read Ward’s books before, I knew her writing style and the speed at which her work usually develops. I knew that the first two thirds would be largely about developing individual characters and their relationships, introducing interpersonal conflict, and then finally barrelling headfirst into a huge climactic encounter. I find it works extremely well – I spend a lot of time getting to know the characters and really becoming connected with them, which heightens the tension when something catastrophic happens towards the end. Where the Line Bleeds felt like maybe it took a little bit longer than Ward’s other novels to reach that climactic moment but the wait still paid off.

Like many other reviews I’ve read for Where the Line Bleeds, I read Ward’s debut after having encountered her later works, and this definitely affected my response to it. While it is a stunning debut, it doesn’t quite measure up to her later novels. However, it is an emblematic start to an oeuvre that continues to grow in strength and beauty.

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

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