“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Jesmyn Ward

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Let the record show that I—Kristin of Lit She Wrote—have, for the first time ever, finished an advanced reader copy before the book’s release date! Please, hold your applause. I’m no hero. Everyone calm down.

In all seriousness, there’s a reason that this notoriously slow reader got through Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: it’s incredible. The story follows 13-year-old Jojo and his troubled, often absent mother Leonie as they travel across Mississippi to pick up Jojo’s father, Michael, after his release from prison. Jojo’s relationship with his mother is strained, perhaps beyond repair, largely due to Leonie’s substance abuse and distracting infatuation with Michael. Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla find refuge in the care of their stoic grandfather, River, and healer grandmother, Philomène.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward artfully intertwines the stories of the living and the dead. Second sight seems to run in the family. Philomène has an intuition for medicinal herbs, but states that she could never quite see the dead. Leonie doesn’t seem to have inherited that skill, but sees her late brother, Given, whenever she’s high. Jojo, meanwhile, can understand animals, as can Kayla (although she is too young to know for sure). Jojo also picks up a ghost—for want of a better phrase—at the prison. It is the spirit of Richie, a young boy who died while incarcerated at the very same prison with River years earlier.

This family is haunted by the unquiet dead. The novel, in this way, is able to explore the impact of race over time. We are given a glimpse of racism in the past. Being black is ultimately what got Richie, still a child, incarcerated and later killed. As for Given, his death happened when he and Leonie were still in their teens, and was a consequence of a white man’s violent ego. In the present, we see how Jojo, at 13, is abused and manhandled by a police officer during a traffic stop. Not to mention that only the people of color in the car were violently mistreated. Race is an absolutely crucial element throughout the narrative, and one that spans generations.

This book was my first experience with Jesmyn Ward. One of her previous works—Salvage the Bones—has been on my radar for years now, but I just haven’t gotten my hands on it. Naturally, when I saw the ARC of Sing, Unburied, Sing sitting in a stack at work, I leapt for it. Ward’s writing is unlike anything else I’ve read in recent memory. The only comparison I can make is to Zora Neale Hurston. There’s just something beautiful about the way she works metaphors, deftly and seamlessly inserting comparisons and descriptions that almost leap off the page. She knows when to skip the step between the actual moment and the metaphor, but never in a way that would leave the reader confused. This was a book I was somewhat hesitant to finish, only because I didn’t want this well-crafted writing to end. Her style, however, and the characters she has created propelled my reading. I knew there was no neat ending for these characters. To offer one would’ve felt forced. No, this is a complicated story, and deserves its equally complicated conclusion. It will leave you wanting—but not needing—more.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is available today. Needless to say, I strongly recommend it. It’s been a while since a work of fiction has drawn me in so closely. Ward has created something incredibly special, and it’s well worth your time.

 

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