[Spoiler alert: This review gives away some elements of the story.]
When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda's Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.
The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that "over the years, upwrenched houses."
Rodoreda's prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn't orient myself in the narrative.
And then I surrendered.
It's a lesson I learn every year at home: In Mississippi, once the summer season sets in, the humidity descends and walking outside feels like swimming. My instinct is to fight the heat. To flee inside. The only way to move through it is to let the heat and the wet air embrace me.
I must breathe it in, deeply. The heat teaches me how to live with it, and Death in Spring, like the most challenging narratives do, taught me how to read it. I began reading for imagery, and I found a textured, delicate plot, slung along by the beauty of each line.
As I surrendered, I learned to love the book for its strange savagery. The narrator's father tries to commit suicide at the opening of the novel, hoping to evade one of the barbaric customs of the village: Those who are dying have pink cement poured into their mouths to prevent their souls from escaping. Their bodies are then entombed in the trunks of trees. The villagers thwart the suicide attempt and perform the ritual, killing him instead.
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Miss. She is the author of Salvage the Bones.
It's the first in a succession of tragedies for the narrator: After his father dies, he marries his stepmother, who loves him until she hates him. His daughter abandons him. He is chosen by a yearly lottery to swim the river in order to save the village from being swept away. This always results in death or disfigurement, the swimmers' faces ripped off by the rocks. Life for this character is a relentless deluge of misfortune, fostered by the misguided mores of a community desperate for spiritual and political order.
I'd never heard of Rodoreda, but I later found out that she was a Catalan writer who lived through the Spanish Civil War and World War II. After I learned of her suffering, I understood some of what inspired her, and why I reacted to the book in such a visceral way.
I was five years removed from Hurricane Katrina, a year removed from the BP oil spill, and was revisiting the story of my dead brother and four friends who died immediately after him. It was easy for me to respond to the narrator's despair at a mad world.
I grasped something of Rodoreda's aims in writing such an uncompromisingly brutal book: The story requires surrender in the same way the tragedies of life do — we must breathe them in to move through them. When you read this book, read it for its beauty, for the way it will surprise and subvert your desires, and as a testament to the human spirit in the face of brutality and willful inhumanity.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.