Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of three generations of a black family in a fictitious town on the Mississippi coast, told from three perspectives. Jojo is a biracial 13-year-old boy living with his grandparents, his mother and his young sister. He idolizes his grandfather but only tolerates his mother, who leaves him with the responsibility of caring for 3-year-old Michaela. His mother, Leonie, soothes her pains with drugs while she waits for her white boyfriend (and Jojo and Michaela’s father) to get out of prison at the same facility in which her father was once held (Parchman, a real place). And here’s where some magical realism comes in: the third narrator is the ghost of a boy Leonie’s father knew in prison.
(A disclaimer: I listened to this book rather than read it, as I do with the majority of my books, but I think I missed things by doing so. One of Jesmyn Ward’s enviable talents is her use of language, and listening meant I couldn’t really reread sentences to fully absorb their meanings. YMMV, but I find this to be true for a lot of literary fiction, versus more plot-driven fiction. So if you’ve read this book and think I’m way off base, I’m blaming the format.)
This is the first book of Ward’s that I’ve read, perhaps ironically, because I borrowed this from the library while I own Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped. (Nothing like a lengthy hold and a looming due date to kick my reading into gear.) Although I haven’t read Men We Reaped, I think its themes are similar to this book; Men We Reaped is a memoir of the various black men Ward has lost in her life, one way or another, while this book explores through fiction the ways that white American society has murdered black men (and boys) throughout generations, changing the norms for how it happens but not changing the fact that it does. Ward puts these deaths into sharp focus by making the story’s dead boys into literal ghosts that interact with the characters. The ghosts are imposing but not frightening, figurative expressions of memory made literal for the story. They reminded me of The Underground Railroad’s literal railroad in that way, although the railroad sometimes hid at the edges of that story while the ghosts of Sing, Unburied, Sing become almost omnipresent, sometimes nagging or judging the characters who see them. What ultimately made this book a four-star read for me rather than five was the climax, which left me confused as to what was happening. It could’ve been the fault of the audiobook or perhaps my listening comprehension, or it might’ve been that the events in the climax seemed to remove the possibility that the ghosts were merely figments of individual characters’ imaginations, a theory I’d clung to because the rest of the story seemed so real.
(I just watched this clip of Ward on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and she confirms this connection to Men We Reaped.)
One thing that struck me when I started this book was how tricky it was to place at a particular time at first. It opens with Jojo helping his grandfather slaughter a goat, a rather graphic scene that could’ve occurred at any number of times throughout American history. Eventually markers of time start to present themselves—Jojo mentions that he remembers something from Head Start, or Leonie mentions the Deepwater Horizon disaster—and the story starts to take root in modern times. But the vagueness of that opening seems intentional given the theme of racism threading its way throughout all of American history.
I also appreciated that Ward partly told the story from Leonie’s perspective, allowing her to complicate and contextualize the character a bit. From Jojo’s opening chapter, we learn that Leonie is a drug-addled, mostly useless mother, and it was easy to slide her into a stereotype in my mind without my really noticing. But when the story switches to her perspective, Leonie has the chance to explain her motivations for self-medicating with drugs. Whether that justifies her treatment of Jojo is up to the reader to decide, but offering her perspective keeps the reader from dismissing her altogether.
This book earned Ward her second National Book Award and was compared to the works of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner—neither of which, I’ll confess, I have read. I’m not all that familiar with the Southern Gothic genre (although I do have books by Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, both on Wikipedia’s list of Southern Gothic authors, languishing in my vast bought-but-unread Kindle and Audible libraries) but the reviews I sought out immediately after finishing this book seemed to place it firmly in that category.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is rife with possible discussion points, and I could probably go on for much longer—for example, I was intrigued by the idea that Leonie despises Big Joseph, her boyfriend’s racist father, but still apparently named Jojo after him (or, at least, allowed Jojo to be named after him)—so it would definitely work well for a book club.