Skip to main content

Sing, Unburied, Sing


Sing, Unburied, Sing

It took some time to suss out what I wanted to say about Jesmyn Ward’s new novel. Theoretically I could write that I loved it and call it a day, but SING, UNBURIED, SING is so much more than the sum of its parts that it would be a disservice to the book, to Ward and to readers to heap generic praise. This is the kind of novel that elicits unexpected emotion, far beyond those that automatically accompany scenes of brutality, conscious child neglect and inescapable poverty. It’s a road novel and a perch on a suffering rural America, a family drama and a ghost story set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in a modern day that feels akin to the pre-Civil Rights South.

“I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight,” read the opening lines of SING, UNBURIED, SING, spoken by Jojo, one of three narrators. Jojo lives with his grandparents, his three-year-old sister Kayla, and his drug-addicted mother Leonie. Though he’s only 13, Jojo knows great responsibility in his household. Mam, his grandmother, is rapidly succumbing to a ravenous cancer. Pop works the small farm on which they live, and Leonie tends bar and gets high, rarely caring for or about her children. Kayla’s well-being falls to her brother, and it’s a responsibility he takes extremely seriously. Jojo and Kayla’s father, Michael, is imprisoned at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, where he’s been since Kayla was in utero.

"This is the kind of novel that elicits unexpected emotion, far beyond those that automatically accompany scenes of brutality, conscious child neglect and inescapable poverty.... The last hundred pages are absolutely brilliant."

Jojo has a tenuous relationship with Leonie. He doesn’t trust her nor does he seem to particularly care for her, often reciprocating the feelings she shows her son. Leonie, for her part, struggles to keep her own life together. A poor black woman with two kids whose father is in prison and a high school education, she has very limited options to care for her family. She tends bar and suffers the racism of the Deep South. She snorts coke with her friend Misty, partly for a reprieve and partly to see Given, her brother who died in a “hunting accident” at the hands of Michael’s cousin, a murder that was covered up by his father. Michael is white, and his parents want nothing to do with Leonie or their black grandchildren.

When Leonie gets the call that Michael is being released from prison, she decides to load the kids in her car and drive north across the state to pick him up at the prison gates. The kids don’t want to go. Leonie cares little for their well-being but is determined that her family be together for Michael’s release. They pack the car and begin what is bound to be a catastrophe of a road trip. Somewhere between picking up a load of drugs, Kayla’s consistent vomiting and a treacherous stop by police, the ghost of a boy not much older than Jojo finds his way into the car. Jojo and Kayla can see him, Leonie can’t, and he insists on going back with them to the coast. He needs to see Pop; he must know the end to the story that Pop has been slowly relating to Jojo about his own time in Parchman.

Each character in SING, UNBURIED, SING is complexly layered and developed. Ward’s prose manipulates the story in the way beautiful writing should, though at times it’s a bit overdone. The last hundred pages are absolutely brilliant. Lore and love, the necessity of truth uttered aloud and peace in death all converge in a chaotic and exquisite ending so deftly rendered that any previous missteps are forgiven.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on September 14, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501126075
  • ISBN-13: 9781501126079