Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner. 304 pp. $26
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Six years ago, a young, relatively unknown writer from Mississippi published Salvage the Bones, about a poor African American family struck by Hurricane Katrina. Salvage the Bones went on to win the 2011 National Book Award for fiction and to establish its author, Jesmyn Ward, as one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country.
Now Ward is back with Sing, Unburied, Sing. Again, she tells a tragic story about an African American family challenged with dissolution, but the threats here are more complex and even more tenacious than Katrina. Working on a wider scale, Ward employs several strangely tethered narrators and allows herself to reach back in time while keeping this family chained to the rusty stake of American racism.
The novel is built around an arduous car trip. A black woman and her two children drive to a prison to pick up their white father. Ward cleverly moves this family across the land while keeping them pressed together, hot and irritated. As soon as they leave their backwoods farm, the snares and temptations of the outside world crowd in, threatening to derail their trip or cast them into some fresh ordeal.
The first voice we hear belongs to the convict's son, Jojo. Harsh circumstances have forced him to shoulder far more responsibility than any 13-year-old should, but he's risen to the challenge. "I like to think I know what death is," he begins, and despite a touch of naive bravado, it's clear he does know. He's also becoming aware of the bruised lives all around, a perception that fascinates and terrifies him, while giving his narration an eerie quality of precocious insight.
Jojo has been raised by his black grandparents, whom he idolizes, and his erratic mother, Leonie, whom he dislikes and distrusts. That tension between Leonie and Jojo is throughout the novel as the narration passes back and forth between them. Selfish and embittered, Leonie is rarely a sympathetic character; Ward draws us deep into the bile of a mother who sometimes hates her children, often resents their claims on her, and even relishes the chance to mistreat them. But in her confessions lies a fuller sense of her shame and disappointment than her judgmental son can imagine at his age. Her failings, which she knows are numerous, have been aggravated by addiction, and grief, and a racist culture that offers no opportunity and little justice.
Driving to the state penitentiary several hours away, Leonie wants to imagine they can be a viable family again, but her mission is poisoned from the start by negligence and her own cravings. She risks her children's safety in a series of crises that hurtles the novel forward toward calamity.
But a countervailing movement links these precarious lives to the past. These are people "pulling all the weight of history," and Ward represents the claims of the dead with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title. Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Sanders' recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but Toni Morrison's Beloved is a more direct antecedent. In this "death-crowded household," Leonie is haunted by her brother, shot by a white man in a hunting "accident." Jojo, meanwhile, can see and hear the agonized spirit of a boy imprisoned with his beloved grandfather decades ago when Southern jails were essentially a system of legalized slavery. (How much has changed?) Leonie and Jojo share this spectral affliction without knowing it or being able to comfort each other - just one of the novel's many painful ironies.
If Sing, Unburied, Sing lacks the singular hypnotic power of Salvage the Bones, its ambition is broader, its style more complex and more mature. And the plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, "The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves."
Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.