How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins
With her sophomore effort entitled How to Survive a Natural Disaster, Margaret Hawkins offers the reader a meditation on family, faith, and redemption. Given the subject matter, one shouldn’t expect a Nicholas Sparks clone or some other emotionally exploitive trash that usually lines the shelves of bookstores and tops bestseller lists. The novel is about redemption, but it is a strange and dark redemption, more Dexter than The Notebook. Through the prism of multiple voices, Hawkins reveals a family in turmoil and a traumatic event that shatters the numbing dysfunction. (The cover displays a young child, teddy bear in hand, a few feet away from a gun.)
Set in contemporary Chicago, Disaster tells the story through multiple narrators. William Faulkner used the same technique in As I Lay Dying. Another work similar to Disaster is the Japanese classic Roshomon, since both center around multiple narrators telling stories relating to “the crime.” The narrators reveal and cover up parts of themselves. This forces the reader to tease out the various biases and arrive at a conclusion. What made Disaster so enjoyable to read was that there was no single conclusion. However, the novel didn’t simply end or remain self-consciously open-ended.
The narrators of the novel include May neé Esmeralda, a Peruvian orphan adopted by Roxanne and Craig. Unlike most children her age, May remains silent and observes everything. Roxanne, the loving mother who wants everything to be perfect, also narrates, along with her husband Craig, the philandering ex-addict who enjoys cooking and art. April, Roxanne’s daughter from a previous marriage, and Phoebe, an obese agoraphobic who works for a textbook company, add other voices. Mr. Cosmo, an old three-legged Weimaraner, rounds out the narrators.
The novel ambles forwards and backwards, approaching and retreating from the disaster that will shatter the family. During the digressive journey, Hawkins illustrates the class stratification in contemporary Chicago. April becomes closer to her stepfather’s parents in posh Lake Forest. Grandma Jack, Roxanne’s mother, has a gritty and unsentimental view of the world one can associate with the working class in big cities. Craig occupies a nomadic existence, crashing in various homes of parents, ex-girlfriends, and artist friends.
The prismatic view offered by the multiple narrators gets further complicated in the aftermath of the disaster. Years pass and lives change. But the novel continues in the same vein that life continues even amidst the disasters that haunt us in our daily lives. Phoebe struggled to overcome her agoraphobia to care for May at a critical juncture.
Hawkins succeeds in creating a redemptive arc for all the characters, but avoiding crass emotionalism or predictable outcomes. It would be easy to make the perpetrator the villain, but life isn’t easy nor does it follow a predetermined path. Permanent Press again shows its commitment to nurturing the offbeat and sometimes hard-edged voices in fiction, letting them take us to strange places and have eccentric characters as our companions on the journey. Sometimes that journey is no further than the neighborhoods of Chicago, but that journey might involve getting into the head of a gun-toting Peruvian orphan girl.