Jesmyn Ward has been publishing regularly ever since winning the 2011 National Book Award — Men We Reaped in 2013 and an anthology of edited works, The Fire This Time, in 2016 — but Sing, Unburied, Sing is her first novel since Salvage the Bones. As with her previous works, Ward again returns to Mississippi to follow a black family that’s on the brink of major changes.
Told mostly in chronological order through the eyes of rotating narrators, the story follows Jojo, a boy on the cusp of leaving childhood. He lives with his grandparents, Mam and Pop, and is often his baby sister’s main caregiver and protector. Sometimes his mother, Leonie, shows up, but she struggles with meth addiction and lacks mothering instincts at best and is negligent at worst. Jojo loves his grandparents, and Pop is the steadiest father figure he has ever had. Mam, meanwhile, seems to be in her final days of battling cancer; she stays upstairs, consumed by pain.
One day, Leonie announces that Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s white father, his being released from Parchman, a prison located across the state. Determined for the whole family to present for Michael’s release, she and the kids, along with a coworker named Misty, set off on a road trip that ends up being a nightmare for the children.
At Parchman, while the family is outside, a boy that only Jojo and Kayla can see appears; special “gifts” run in the family, and these two seem particularly talented. The boy, Richie, claims to know Pop, who himself did a stint at Parchman many years ago, and he decides to tag along for the return ride home so that he can see Pop again. Leonie, too, sees someone from time to time: Given, her brother who died a violent and untimely death many years ago. He appears when she gets high, watching reproachfully as his sister sinks further from herself.
If there’s one thing I remember about Salvage the Bones, a book in which dog fighting played a prominent role, it’s that Jesmyn Ward never shied away from the horrific details. It is with that in mind that I read through Sing, Unburied, Sing with increasing trepidation, knowing that intense things were probably going to happen. And they did.
There’s sooo much going on in this book: a boy wanting to be a man, people dealing with the violent legacies of racism, parents struggling with addiction, a family trying to cope with the impending loss of its matriarch, and secrets long buried pushing themselves into the light. Through it all, a palpable thread of magical realism/spirituality pushes the plot forward. In this book, ghosts are real, ghosts are present. It would probably be too much for a lesser writer to handle, but Ward presents it all with her signature eloquence and unflinching gaze.
Sing, Unburied, Sing was released today by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.