A review of How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

How to Survive a Natural Disaster
By Margaret Hawkins
Permanent Press
199 pages, September 1, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-1579622046

Margaret Hawkins has a unique, and very original voice. Her work manages the fine line between droll and compassionate; deadpan rather black humour and open-hearted spirituality. In her second novel, How to Survive a Natural Disaster, Hawkins explores the modern, dysfunctional family. There are six narrators: May, April, Roxanne, Craig, Mr Cosmo, and Phoebe, each telling their stories in a kind of confessional first person. Getting used to each of these voices and how they fit in the overall construction of the novel takes a little time, but as each narrative functions as a short chapter, headed by the individual ‘confessor’, the reading is fast paced, and the context becomes clear without too much trouble. May (Esmeralda) is the catalyst that begins the story. She’s adopted from Peru as a four month old baby, taken into the home of Roxanne, April, and the sometimes father figure Craig, and opens by telling the reader that she deliberately didn’t speak until she was seven years old.

May’s arrival is partly an attempt by Roxanne to win back Craig, an artist whose love of cooking and adoration of his two step-children underpins his otherwise slippery character. Instead of bringing Roxanne and Craig closer, May’s arrival develops into a horrorshow of emotions, obsessions, subtle and underhanded tricks, and attempts at escape which end up in a wholly unexpected turn of events that I won’t give away. This is partly due to the gentle and bucolic style of the narrative as each character attempts to gain the reader’s sympathy – a narration that puts the reader in the uncomfortable role of confessee. It’s a fascinating play on the modern family that leaves no character unscathed or undamaged, except for the already damaged three legged dog (the hero of the novel if there is any hero) Mr Cosmo, whose voice is at least as real and pervasive as the human characters.

Phoebe, a friendly neighbour, has a strong role in the novel, but as a mentally unstable outsider, the reasons for her involvement, along with the extent of her illness, remain unclear. But this isn’t a story where clarity is important. Phoebe’s character is one that is both odd and compelling. She almost functions as an uber-narrator, providing the book’s title in her obsessive collecting of news headlines, a desperate attempt to find clues to the meaning of life:

I am edging toward what I really want, the highlight of my day, the CNN news. Or rather the news headlines, twenty pregnant lines that sketch a weird contour of a weirder world at that particular moment. I take my time to read each one, savoring each word as I try to unpack each headline’s dense meaning, on guard for surprise connections. Each is like a puzzle, a poem. Each word merits contemplation, suggests many possible meanings. Each line signifies some change in fortune, large or small, a cataclysm, a tragedy, a failure, a decision or very occasionally a boon. Each is an epiphany in six or seven words. (107-108)

One of those headlines is, of course, “How to Survive a Natural Disaster”, which refers in its context, to some kind of event like a tsunami; a cyclone; an earthquake. The novel doesn’t provide any of those disasters. Instead, the natural disaster is the modern family, and the book traces this distorted family’s odd form of survival. How to Survive a Natural Disaster is, in turns, a disturbing and very funny novel of frailty, change, and a kind of survival. Each of the characters makes multiple transformations, both internal and external, that move between appearance and the reality underneath. Artifices come and go and finally disappear by the book’s end.

The natural disaster in this book won’t be like your own natural disaster—every one’s is different and this family is certainly quirkier and more dysfunctional than most, but there’s plenty to recognise here. Hawkins’ narrative has an uncanny way of winkling out pretences and rationalisations and getting into the heart of flawed humanity. This is a seemingly simple novel that moves across that disturbing line we all walk between sanity and the edge of comfort.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Article first published as Book Review: How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins on Blogcritics.