Fans of Margaret Hawkins’ first novel, A Year of Cats and Dogs, will find that she’s exploring some familiar ground in her sophomore effort, How to Survive a Natural Disaster, but they’ll also see that she’s progressed immensely in terms of both technique and emotional depth. As with A Year of Cats and Dogs, Hawkins exhibits a soft spot for animals throughout her latest novel. Indeed, a three-legged dog named Mr. Cosmo narrates portions of the book a la such contemporary pet-centered works as Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. How to Survive a Natural Disaster, however, sees Hawkins expanding her character palate to include a mismatched and largely dysfunctional family whose ups and downs become especially pronounced when the mother decides to adopt a Peruvian child in a misguided attempt at infusing more love into her life. The result is a heart-wrenching tale not so much of the things we do for love, but the things we do when love runs dry.
One thing that makes How to Survive a Natural Disaster so compelling is that Hawkins allows each of her major characters to shoulder the burden of narration. As a result, readers come at the truth (or “truths”) behind the events depicted in the novel from a number of different perspectives. In this respect, How to Survive a Natural Disaster is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, though a contemporary setting and more conventional use of language lend themselves to greater emotional resonance in Hawkins’ book. Another way to say this might be that Hawkins can be artistic without going over the heads of most readers, for How to Survive a Natural Disaster does a wonderful job of walking the fine line between high art and entertainment in that it appeals to the heart as well as the mind.
How to Survive a Natural Disaster is nothing short of excellent. Throughout the novel, Hawkins demonstrates a gift not only for creating strong characters, but for speaking in distinct tongues for each of those characters as well. Though dark at times, the world she envisions is ultimately a hopeful one—a world where sorrow and forgiveness have no choice but to walk hand in hand. With any luck, the fact that Hawkins envisions her world so clearly and vividly means that our own world might also follow suit.
All told, an expertly crafted and emotionally gripping read.