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Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward X
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 304 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2018, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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A journey through Mississippi's past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story, and the power - and limitations - of family bonds.

"I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it's something I could look at straight." These haunting lines come from the mouth of 13-year-old Jojo. With an absent father and a drug-addicted mother, the mixed-race boy is forced to grow up in a hurry as he is often the sole caretaker of his toddler sister, Kayla. His black grandmother Mam is wasting away from cancer, and grandfather Pop is struggling with his own demons even as he tries to provide a measure of moral guidance to his grandson.

Jojo and his mother, Leonie, narrate most of Sing, Unburied, Sing in alternating chapters as the story travels back and forth in time, the past forever casting a shadow over the present. Like Jesmyn Ward's National Book award-winning Salvage the Bones, this novel, too, is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, a place ravaged by poverty and subject to nature's cruel whims. The only escape from this harsh world seems to be meth, a release valve that Leonie grasps at readily. Racism is the other scourge that gnaws at the community's marrow, casting its grim shadow over every single person. It is the evil that irrevocably shapes Pop. His daughter, Leonie, has chosen a white man, Michael, as her husband and the father of her children, a relationship that destroys the family in more ways than one.

Sing, Unburied, Sing galvanizes into action when Leonie gets word that Michael is going to be released from jail after serving time for drug offenses. Her white friend Misty in tow, she brings both Jojo and Kayla along for the ride to pick up their father, a journey where misfortune and misery doggedly pursue them.

Ghosts of both the metaphorical and literal kind haunt these pages. Some of the most compelling chapters are narrated by Richie, the ghost of a boy who spent time at the notorious Parchman prison along with Pop, and whose spirit is linked to the family in many ways. Leonie also sees a ghost – that of her brother Given, who, like Richie, met an unnecessary and tragic end way too soon. He is her source of strength, a crutch she leans on to get through her muddled daily life. These elements of magical realism meld in seamlessly with the narrative - when real life becomes too difficult to bear, leaning on ghosts is a salve of its own.

Jojo and Pop are the most memorable characters of the story as they each struggle with their daily burdens of responsibility, guilt and wrenching family ties. Pop's story is richly layered, and one of the novel's many delights lies in getting to know this enigmatic man more closely and to lay bare the secrets that he holds dear, the same ones that have nearly done him in. Also brilliantly rendered is the Mississippi bayou — you practically suffocate under the weight of that stifling humidity and lush vegetation.

"Watching the family grabs me inside, twists, and pulls tight. It hurts. It hurts so much I can't look at it," Richie once says. The same could be said of the reader as misery after misfortune seems to pile on thick for Jojo and his loved ones. Yet despite their trying circumstances, the novel is nowhere near bleak. In fact, just as the title promises, it sings — the ghosts and the cast of characters together create a beautiful and haunting melody, one that resonates long after the last page is turned.

Will the secrets from the past that have forever been haunting this family finally be buried and put to rest? Sing, Unburied Sing is a moving and stark ode to the new South, a place where the present and past intertwine closely — so closely that it has become increasingly difficult to shake history's ugly stain and nature's brutal force to forge a new path. The residents, like Jojo and his family, just do what it takes to see the light of another day. That, in its own way, is its own kind of salvation.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2017, and has been updated for the May 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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