'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward

Review #110

I wanted to love this novel. I really did, and I tried. But I didn’t feel sated by this Sunday’s selection: ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ by Jesmyn Ward:

Her previous book, ‘Salvage the Bones,’ was much better. It crackled with energy and had interesting characters to care about. No such luck here, so I’m going to keep this review short. At the heart of this National Book Award winner is an important story about race in America and the legacy of slavery, particularly how it translates into the mass incarceration of people of color. The novel is set in Bois Sauvage, the same rural Mississippi town as her previous work, and centers on Jojo, a 13-year-old biracial boy being cared for by his grandparents. His mother, a black woman named Leonie, is rarely around because she is either working in a bar or high on meth. His father, a white man named Michael, also isn’t around; he’s in prison on drug charges. When Michael is to be released from Parchman prison, Leonie and Jojo (along with his 3-year-old sister, Kayla) go on a road trip to pick him up. That’s when Jojo discovers he has a supernatural power:

He can see the ghosts of black people murdered by whites and the influence of white power. He encounters the first ghost when they arrive at Parchman to pick up Michael. The apparition is named Richie, a 12-year-old boy who was incarcerated at Parchman back when the prison was akin to an antebellum slave plantation. Richie is sitting on the floor in the backseat of the car when Jojo finds him, and the ghost wants Jojo’s help to figure out how he died. Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, who was a prisoner with Richie, has this information. So the ghost hitches a ride. On the journey back, the family is pulled over by a cop who roughs up Jojo thinking he has a gun. Leonie swallows a lot of drugs so the cop doesn’t find them, and nearly overdoses; later they give her an emetic and she recovers. Then, back in Bois Sauvage, they visit Michael’s family and have a blow-out fight with his racist father, Big Joseph. Once home with Pop, there’s a supernatural finale, and then the book ends with Jojo discovering there are many more ghosts who seek resolution and justice for their violent ends. We readers are left with the challenge of what we will do about the ghosts from America’s bloody past. Will we pretend they don’t exist, or will we look them in the eye like:

The most compelling aspect of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ is its use of symbols. Parchman prison, for example, is a symbol for the racial evil in America’s past and present. Richie and the other ghosts symbolize how that evil haunts us today. (Many in our current political climate suggest that if you can see these ghosts you should leave the country.) And Jojo shows us how both races can come together to see our past clearly and find a way forward. But I think this book would have benefitted by having the characters more fleshed out. Not that I needed them to be likable or entertaining, I just wanted the opportunity to feel more emotionally invested in their fates. But I felt I was seeing them from the perspective of the ghosts: from a distance, unable to get to know them up close. Maybe that is the point, but it left me like:

How it begins:

I like to think I know what death is. 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, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. 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 is my birthday.

I grab the door so it don’t slam, ease it into the jamb. I don’t want Mam or Kayla to wake up with none of us in the house. Better for them to sleep. Better for my little sister, Kayla, to sleep, because on nights when Leonie’s out working, she wake up every hour, sit straight up in the bed, and scream. Better for Grandma Mam to sleep, because the chemo done dried her up and hollowed her out the way the sun and the air do water oaks. Pop weaves in and out of the trees, straight and slim and brown as a young pine tree. He spits in the dry red dirt, and the wind makes the trees wave. It’s cold. This spring is stubborn; most days, it won’t make way for warmth. The chill stays like water in a bad-draining tub. I left my hoodie on the floor in Leonie’s room, where I sleep, and my T-shirt is thin, but I don’t rub my arms. If I let the cold goad me, I know when I see the goat, I’ll flinch or frown when Pop cuts the throat. And Pop, being Pop, will see.

“Better to leave the baby asleep,” Pop says.

Pop built our house himself, narrow in the front and long, close to the road so he could leave the rest of the property wooded. He put his pigpen and his goat yard and the chicken coop in small clearings in the trees. We have to walk past the pigpen to get to the goats. The dirt is black and muddy with shit, and ever since Pop whipped me when I was six for running around the pen with no shoes on, I’ve never been barefoot out here again. You could get worms, Pop had said. Later that night, he told me stories about him and his sisters and brothers when they were young, playing barefoot because all they had was one pair of shoes each and them for church. They all got worms, and when they used the outhouse, they pulled worms out of their butts. I don’t tell Pop, but that was more effective than the whipping.

My rating:

‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ by Jesmyn Ward was published by Scribner in 2017. 285 pages. $15.30 at Strand Book Store.

In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘Fleishman is in Trouble’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Also in the queue are ‘Disoriental’ by Négar Djavadi, ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh and ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai, among others. 

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #109 featured ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,