• Sing, Unburied, Sing
Sing, Unburied, Sing Book Cover Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jesmyn Ward
September 5, 2017

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward. In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers. Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise. Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

A haunting insight into the truth about a life of poverty in the Deep South…

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.