Jesmyn Ward is the award winning author of the critically acclaimed book, Salvage the Bones. Sing, Unburied, Sing is her first complete novel since its publication. Ms. Ward’s talent is undeniable. Her passion for her craft, her ability to provoke a broad range of emotions, in her readers, through her words, and her knowledge of both present hardships and past history are apparent from page one. I absolutely appreciated the importance of the story, the depth of her character development and the way in which she handled the difficult subject and the multiple points of view. However, I think, for me, I found it tough to relate to both the setting and the characters, simply because my knowledge of the history of that area of the country, as well as my comprehension of many of the situations the family finds themselves in, is lacking.
The novel is alternately narrated by thirteen year old Jojo, and drug addict and his neglectful mother, Leonie, with appearances by the ghostly voices of relatives who have passed, mostly represented by Leonie’s murdered brother, Richie. Jojo and his little sister Kayla live in a poor, rural area of Mississippi with their Mam, who is dying of cancer, their Pop, who is legitimately the only responsible adult in the household, and Leonie, when she deigns to appear. At the start of the book, their white father, Michael, is serving time in the state penitentiary. I felt that Pop, who, in my opinion, honestly was the glue holding the family together, should have played a larger narrative role.
The story changes setting several times, from their house in the backwoods, to a disturbing road trip to the prison. There are multiple flashback episodes- fromwhen Pop regales Jojo about relatives, or history, to when Leonie stumbles through a drug-addled trance. Magic and spiritualism play a part throughout, and for me that was another aspect I just could not connect with.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is real. It is gripping and disturbing. It is a sad tale, woven with hints of hope. The novel is beautifully written with a chilling perspective on what life is like for those who are forgotten. I only wish I had the ability and the depth of knowledge to appreciate and enjoy its brilliance, as much as I would have liked to.