Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward
289 pages, $26
Not to mince words, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a marvel -- a novel that not only transcends the genre but unlike most of its counterparts, can be called literature.
Arresting, elevating, relevant, original. All the words apply although “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is not a pretty book. Jesmyn Ward does not write fetching books. She writes profound and soulful books full of people faced with enormous obstacles. Yet she does this with such lyricism and verisimilitude that a reader is often stunned to find the written word so real, so alive and so filled with passion and feeling that its pages sing.
In this, Ward’s latest oeuvre of the American South, everyone hears and/or sings the myriad laments of life as three extant generations and two long-deceased boys make their difficult ways across a host of relationships, back and forth and over time. As in Ward’s 2011 novel, “Salvage the Bones,” “Sing, Unburied, Sing” takes place in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage (“Wild Wood”), Mississippi.
(“Salvage” it should be noted, won the National Book Award for fiction, and “Sing” is long-listed for the same honor among 2017’s not-yet-announced awards.)
Both novels are of-the-moment but manifestations of a rural Southern past hobbled by racism, poverty and a long, unbroken history of oppression – facts heavily underscored by the aftermath of 2005’s deadly Hurricane Katrina.
Central to “Salvage,” the storm is barely mentioned in “Sing” whose principal narrator, Jojo, turns 13 in the novel’s opening pages. A sensitive boy and the chief caretaker of his toddler sister, Kayla, Jojo speaks an unsophisticated patois that belies the depth of his perception.
As the book opens, Jojo’s grandfather “Pop” is about to slaughter a goat (for Jojo’s birthday dinner) and has asked Jojo to assist him:
“I like to think I know what death is,” Jojo muses. “I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out the house. … I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today’s my birthday.”
Jojo will “get bloody” in countless (earned and unearned) ways -- a wonderful, and unforgettably portrayed, mixed-race boy whose world is comprised, besides Pop, of his dying grandmother, “Mam;” his drug-addicted parents, Leonie and Michael, and his beloved little sister Michaela, more often known as Kayla.
Circumstances have rendered this a family frozen in time. Plus, Michael is in jail (on drug charges), his wealthy White parents loath to have anything to do with their son’s Black lover, Leonie, and her children by their son – the capital W and B used throughout the book, as if to emphasize further their too-long-embedded divide.
But if conditions are bleak, they are also rich in promise for Jojo and Pop (who can make do with anything) and are the catalyst for Mam, Leonie and Jojo’s abilities to “see” ghosts of the deceased.
For Leonie, the specter is always Given, her brother killed fifteen years before (by Michael’s cousin) who always comes to Leonie when she is high, he a phantom or “chemical figment” in a black shirt.
“Given-not-Given” she calls him: “Given that came to me every time I snorted a line, every time I popped a pill. He sat in one of the two empty chairs at the table…and leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. He was watching me, like always…”
When Michael phones to say that he will soon be released from Mississippi’s Parchman Prison, Leonie (so happy her insides feel “like a full ditch ridden with a thousand tadpoles”) gathers her best friend Misty (a fair-haired Caucasian) as well as Jojo and Kayla – and sets out to retrieve Michael.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is centered on the long, difficult journey that follows – one during which Kayla will become ill, vomiting through much of the trip, and the quartet, once at Parchman, will pick up not only Michael but also a boy called Richie, dead since the 1940s and once known to Pop, a ghost seen only by Jojo.
In the context of “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” none of this is strange. We simply respond to the song – which, in turn, lures us to a deep only Richie can see although he doesn’t understand, yet, what he sees. Jojo does – some – and Leonie would, were she less often high, and Mam, were they home and Mam not about to die.
This is Ward at her most spiritual, and superstitious, an author who renders us awash in the mystery, and wonder, of time when it is not linear and perception when it crosses some unseen boundary. Ward’s people may not have many material goods, or even aspire to, but they have interior lives of untold depth, particularly Pop and Jojo.
Ward is often compared to her late great Southern compatriot Faulkner – as well as fellow African-American novelists Toni Morrison and the late Zora Neale Hurston -- and “Sing” also brings to mind the lyricism and rural themes of the novels of Marilynne Robinson and the endless adjectives of the late Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
But Ward is chiefly her own woman, inimitable when it comes to characters like Jojo, a boy for all time whose devotion to his small sister, Kayla, neglected by her mother Leonie, is matched only by Pop’s love and protection of Jojo.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a triumph – haunting, deep, a slice of life so raw, and timely, that it is at times daunting, of a beauty too much to bear.
When Richie, for instance, finds his song in a tree of ghosts, he shares their terrible deaths with Jojo before passing, singing with the other wraiths, into the beyond:
“I stand until there is no sun,” Jojo tells us. “I stand until I smell pine through the salt and sulfur. I stand until the moon rises and their mouths close and they are a murder of silver crows. I stand until the forest is a black-knuckled multitude. I stand until I bend, find a hollow stick, turn to the house, and whip the air in front of me, away from the dead, to find Pop, holding Kayla. They shine bright as the ghosts in the dark.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and regular News book reviewer.