Published by Scribner
Publication date: September 5th 2017
JoJo lives in Bois, a small town in rural Mississippi, with his Pop and Mam—his mother’s parents, and his little sister, Kayla. His mother, Leonie, is a sometime visitor, but drugs and other past-times mean she’s not around much. His father, Michael? He’s in Parchman prison. And he’s white, which means JoJo has a whole other family that wants nothing to do with him or his sister. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward jumps into JoJo’s life when his father is being released from prison, and his mother insists they all need to go pick him up. In the space of a two-day car trip, In the space of a two-day car trip Ward uses flashbacks and a dual narrative to furnish this diorama of the darker truths of the deep South.
Despite the drama of the above sentence there is no sensationalistic secret unearthed in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Instead, there is the kind of truth there’s too much of, but we’d rather not know. Of men like Pop, who also spent time at Parchman, but at a very different time, when you’re black and could be treated as slave labor. Or boys, like JoJo, without parents who care, living adult lives caring for a younger sibling. Two men, one old and one young, doing the best they can in a world that is not just disinterested, but seems actively disinclined to let them move ahead. There is a feeling throughout the novel of expending enormous effort to be free of a sucking mud that holds on and drags down.
Even with the very real weight of JoJo’s life, Ward goes a step further and adds a supernatural element. Both Leonie and JoJo are haunted—Leonie by her dead brother, Given, and JoJo, by a young man named Richie. For some, this will add another layer of complexity to the novel, but I found it distracting. It reminded me of The Turner House, another novel I read recently, where the stories of the living are partially obscured by the spirit world. Sing, Unburied, Sing doesn’t need any more than JoJo, Pop, and the world around them.
I often read fiction about life in foreign countries because it opens my eyes to experiences I’ll never have and lives I can’t imagine—even when those that are bleak. It’s also easier to read of neglect, deprivation, and the uglier aspects of society when it is taking place far away or long ago. Because that could never happen here and now, right? In Sing, Unburied, Sing Ward answers that question—it can and it does. With thick, rich prose she makes the sadness closer and the anger easier to call up. JoJo’s story is not fantastical. It’s in the smallness, the daily grind of a life that is trying to snuff out his light that Ward gives us a story of an America that we may not want to see and hear, but it’s there.