book review: sing, unburied, sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 285 pp.
Published September 5, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Summary (via Goodreads): An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

My thoughts: Jesmyn Ward wields the English language with ethereal precision, conjuring an evocative, fable-like story about the Black experience in the American South. No matter your background or history, this is a novel that commands empathy from the first line. "I like to think I know what death is." Spoken by Jojo, one of three POV characters who relate the story in turns, it's a haunting thought when coming from a thirteen-year-old child. Jojo is perceptive beyond his years, in part thanks to the loving guidance of his maternal grandparents, and partly thanks to the less-than-positive yet inescapable influence of Leonie, his mother, and Michael, his incarcerated father. At an age where children are increasing caught between the vision of who they want to become—in this case, a facsimile of his reserved grandfather—and who their upbringing is shaping them into, Jojo's struggles carry high stakes on an intimate scale.

Leonie almost begs for the reader's disdain: neglectful of her children, addicted to drugs, and besotted with a man whose parents still put stock in the color of a person's skin, she fails time and again when given the chance to make things just a little bit better. Yet coiled deep within are vestiges of a worldly self-awareness imparted by her mother. If she could only nurture these desiccated tendrils then perhaps Leonie could return to the woman she once wanted to be.

The final and perhaps most heartbreaking of narrators is Richie, a boy who died while an inmate at Parchman. His history is fatefully intertwined with Pop's, Jojo's revered grandfather. Revealed as an antiquated replica of the Old South, the state penitentiary placed White inmates in charge of Black men working the fields and armed them with trained dogs for enforcement. It's no environment for an adult, much less a child younger than Jojo; not even a man as well-intentioned as Pop can avert tragedy, as we learn while the story unspools across rural Mississippi.

These three voices join together in an alternating chorus, related to one another by the biased attitudes and institutions that have doggedly persisted in spite of all common decency demanding otherwise. Together they show not only the singular struggles of the Black community in the Gulf Coast region, but also bring out the universally human responses we may have to hardship. All three are changed by their shared journey and the individuals encountered along the way, just as we are changed by reading of it.

Sing, Unburied, Sing goes beyond provoking emotion; it makes the reader feel. I often wanted to dig down past the binding and grab the characters. To yell at them, to comfort them, to guide them towards a path of least resistance. The complex sort of urges you associate more with flesh-and-blood friends, rather than engaging characters in a book. Their lives seep out beyond the covers and linger well after you've shelved the book away. Ward has crafted another fine piece of contemporary American literature whose value and meaning will only deepen over time.

RATING: ★★★★

Check out my other Powell's Indiespensable reviews here!

No comments:

Post a Comment