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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

December 31, 2018


This is a wonderfully lyrical, gritty, bleak story of a poor family in Mississippi on the verge of complete collapse. Ward builds a world that is viscous both physically and metaphorically—a story of muddy ground, animal innards and vomit, a setting of nested prisons and inescapable circumstances. The narrators rotate by chapter primarily between Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy, and his neglectful drug addict of a mother, Leonie.

Jojo and his three-year-old sister, Kayla, live with their black grandparents in a small rural home. Their white father is in prison upstate, and in the middle section of the novel, Leonie drags the children with her to meet him upon his release—stopping both up and back at her drug dealer’s house. “She ain’t got the mothering instinct,” Jojo’s grandmother says of Leonie—a massive understatement.

The dynamics between the characters in the story are rich. But the novel is also rooted deeply in the history of the area—the racism and poverty, cycles of addiction and unstable family structures weigh down on everyone. Mistakes compound upon mistakes. Generationally, the grandparents had it worse. We hear that in their stories. But Leonie can’t seem to get out of her own way, blames the world around her: “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” Meanwhile, her children make due, like her parents made due.

On top of this family dynamic, there are layers of supernatural at play. Ghosts haunt the family—a brother murdered by a white boy, another boy the grandfather knew from prison years ago. Certain family members can see these ghosts, converse with them. The ghosts are trapped in this world too, angry, hopeless, helpless, dependent on some invisible set of rules that nobody quite understands but that governs all.

I love the way this story switches from the real, tangible detail—the smell of the drink or crackle of the hair against the leather seat—to the spiritual. Ward spins metaphors like cobwebs all over this novel, often accentuating an otherwise ordinary moment with simple, beautiful visuals, such as when she describes Leonie’s voice as “a fishing line thrown so weakly the wind catches it.”

This was a birthday gift from my friend, Brian. It turned out to be one of my favorite novels of the year. I plan to read Ward’s Salvage the Bones soon.

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