Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel
- By Jesmyn Ward
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Nathan Blanchard
- September 11, 2017
A radiant, nuanced story of family, addiction, and race in the Mississippi Delta.
Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a mesmerizing saga that infuses a contemporary road narrative with a timeless vitality and urgency of the likes of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Jean Toomer. It starts as an unassuming family drama but ends as a profound invocation of the human condition.
Thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, have been living with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Their mother, Leonie, is an addict. She spends more time getting high than caring for her children, forcing Jojo to become the caregiver for Kayla.
Jojo learns about manhood from Pop, who is dealing with his own challenges as Mam slowly succumbs to cancer. When the kids’ white father is released from prison, Jojo and Kayla accompany Leonie, along with her friend Misty, on a road trip to the upstate penitentiary to retrieve him.
Their journey takes the shape of a classic road story, replete with Leonie’s failures as a mother, the woes of drug addiction, and Jojo’s attempts to protect Kayla from the family’s plight. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who died a violent death years ago at the hands of a belligerent white classmate. But Given’s spirit only appears to her when she is high.
Jojo, in turn, is haunted by a ghost named Richie, a young man from Pop’s dark past. Richie’s experiences with Pop decades ago at a work camp thematically overlap with Jojo and Leonie’s odyssey through rural Mississippi and establish a generational lineage of remorse that the family struggles to overcome.
The book is told through the voices of Jojo, Leonie, and Richie. The alternating perspectives offer insight into why Leonie cannot provide motherly love, why Pop avoids certain topics of conversation, and how Jojo is able to alleviate Kayla’s worries.
Each character has distinct concerns, but they all narrate with a similar heightened language full of poetic notes. Which is not to say that the book is overly flowery or riddled with abstraction. On the contrary, Ward’s sentences embody the rawness, the mugginess, and the intense heat of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The terrain is palpable through her characters’ words and observations, oscillating between their felt senses and the reveries those sensations invoke:
“She’d marked the route with a pen; it scrawls north up a tangle of two-lane highways, smudged in places from Leonie’s finger running up and down the state. The pen’s marks are dark si it’s hard for me to read the route names, the letters and numbers shadowed. But I see the prison name, the place Pop was: Parchman. Sometimes I wonder who that parched man was, that man dying for water, that they named the town and the jail after. Wonder if he looked like Pop, straight up and down, brown skin tinged with red, or me, an in-between color, or Michael, the color of milk. Wonder what that man said before he died of a cracked throat.”
At its heart, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a study of the 21st-century American family. The ties that exist among an interracial family are put to the test by America’s pernicious demeanor toward people of color and poor folk. Their lives suffer the toxic whims of racism and classism, of nefarious law enforcement and unrelenting addiction. Leonie wishes she could be a better mother. Jojo wishes he could keep Kayla safe from hunger and violence. Pop wishes he could save his wife.
At times, it seems as though their shared pain might offer redemption. By acknowledging that the past and future coexist in the present, their mutual agony empowers them to endure. Mam says, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” The ghosts of times gone past are always with us.
Readers who are looking for an intricate plot will not find one here. Ward minimizes plot — the lion’s share of events takes place inside a beat-up car. But that doesn’t mean the modest plot has no narrative value. What’s powerful about Sing, Unburied, Sing is not necessarily what happens in the plot, but rather what that plot signifies.
Southern black poverty, with all its fraught nuances, is the central force of the book, and through its matrix of hardships, the characters confront their passions, fears, and familial bonds. Contemporary life thrums with an intense heat in Ward’s exquisite depiction of an impoverished Black South. The book is an ode to the South, but also an indictment of it.
Like most great books, Sing, Unburied, Sing suffers from one unfortunate shortcoming — only once can you experience the joy of reading it for the first time. Luckily, there’s no limit to how much you can sing its praises. Sing, Unburied, Sing further solidifies Jesmyn Ward’s place as one of this country’s most incandescent voices.
Nathan Blanchard currently lives in Tuscaloosa, AL, where he is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Alabama. His work has appeared in the Missouri Review, decomP, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He was the runner-up in comedy for the 2016 Miller Audio Prize.