I haven’t read Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward’s earlier novel, though it’s been on my to-read list since it first came out, so this was my first experience with Ward’s writing. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a novel both beautiful and terrible, heartbreaking yet optimistic, and grittily realistic while tinged with magical realism.
It’s a family story but one where the history of race, poverty, and violence is close to the surface. Jojo lives with his grandparents, Pop and Mam, while his mother, Leonie, hovers around the edges. She is not the mothering type, even to her three-year-old daughter, Kayla, and is often gone—either at work or getting high. Her boyfriend, Michael, who is father both to Jojo and Kayla, is in prison, and they have no contact with Michael’s family, mainly because Michael’s father, Big Joseph, is a raging racist.
The main plotline of the novel involves Leonie and her friend, Misty, taking Jojo and Kayla north to pick up Michael as he is released from prison. However, the bulk of the novel involves memories of the past—whether they are Pop’s memories of his time in prison, Mam’s memories of meeting Pop, Leonie’s memories of losing her brother, Given, and taking up with Michael in the aftermath, or Jojo’s memories of his mom’s past negligence.
The chapters are alternately narrated by Jojo and Leonie, though about halfway through the story, we get chapters from the point of view of Richie, the ghost of a boy who died decades ago. He’s a ghost that only Jojo can see, but when Leonie gets high, which is often, she sees the ghost of her brother, Given, killed by a white man.
A number of folks who took part in the Now Read This book club in January (this book was the first selection for the PBS News Hour-sponsored book club) were dismayed at the character of Leonie. How could a mother be like this and still be sympathetic? I think what I found particularly masterful was how Ward put us in Leonie’s head and helped make her addiction, negligence, and love for her children understandable and unsettling. She wants to be better, do better, but her addiction to drugs and to Michael keep getting in the way. Her love is as fierce as her anger and it stands in stark contrast to the steadiness and strength of Pop’s love for his grandchildren.
This novel reminded me of the importance sometimes of simply listening to the characters tell their story and trying to see the world through their eyes, even if only for 285 pages. There’s a lot going on in this novel—love, addiction, magic, ghosts, racial violence, and guilt—and I won’t soon be forgetting anyone in it.