on sing, unburied, sing

A snapshot of a family in crisis, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing reckons with the legacy of racial injustice in the Deep South.

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Since the novel’s release last fall, Sing, Unburied, Sing has been so widely read and reviewed that it feels difficult to add anything new to what already has been written. I would have finished the novel before the end of last year, had I read consistently during college. But I didn’t, so last week was my first encounter with the book.

The novel is Jesmyn Ward’s third and the final installment in her Bois Sauvage trilogy, a short series of books that explore small town southern family life. Like Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, the novel takes place in the fictional rural town of Bois Sauvage, located on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The story centers on a small cast of characters and charts their movements across the lush and isolated setting.

The premise resists neat summarization. The novel follows thirteen-year-old Jojo and his mother Leonie as the pair drives north to retrieve Jojo’s white father from prison upon his release. Along the way, Leonie struggles to care for Jojo’s younger sister, Kayla, forcing Jojo to help care for the toddler. Jojo begrudges his mother for her inability to parent her children, as well as her addiction to cocaine, while Leonie resents her son for having earned the trust and affection of her daughter.

Much of the 304-page novel centers on exploring the fraught relationship between mother and son. Ward creates tension by alternating between the perspectives of Jojo and Leonie; readers witness the rich inner lives of both protagonists and see how they clash with each other. Over the course of fifteen chapters, Ward dramatizes the many ways in which Leonie defies the simplistic views her son holds of her. The mother remains mostly unsympathetic, but in drawing attention to the complexity of her emotions, the author thwarts attempts to cast Leonie as the book’s antagonist.

On the road, both Leonie and Jojo also are haunted by ghosts, specters of young Black men killed in acts of racialized violence.  Leonie is visited by the ghost of her brother Given, murdered by the cousin of her husband while he was a teen. By contrast, Jojo sees the spirit of Richie, a dead boy his grandfather knew while the two were imprisoned decades ago. The presence of the ghosts affords Ward the chance to mediate on the history of racism in America. The spirits are the quintessential victims of anti-Black violence, Ward suggests, and the protagonists’ fixation on them gestures toward the corrosive effects of white supremacy upon Black interiority in general.

I admire the ambition of this novel, in that it breaks down generic boundaries and takes on a wide range of themes. The novel is at once a road novel, a family saga, a  ghost story, and a character study. It considers mass incarceration, racialized violence, generational conflict, the origins of empathy and hate, and family bonds. Ward’s style of writing is gripping, her aspirations commendable, but the novel has a few noticeable flaws.

The voices of Jojo and Leonie sound almost identical, in spite of their differing ages, genders, and life views. Both voices hybridize vernacular English with lyrical reflection in ways that recall those of certain Faulkner characters, like Darl from As I Lay Dying. This technique can be deployed to great effect, but it still requires the author to vary each character’s perspective. That Leonie and Jojo sound so similar slows down the pace of the novel and makes it read as fairly monotonous.

The protagonists also feel static for such a character-driven novel. Both are well drawn, but neither changes over the course of three hundred pages. Ward’s intention might have been to stress the ways in which the novel’s isolated, impoverished setting stunts growth, but the author could have at least offered the promise of change. Doing so would have made for a more compelling narrative and more realistic characters.

In spite of its flaws, though, Sing, Unburied, Sing is an affecting and powerful read. It’s not difficult to see why the novel won the National Book Award last year, and with it, Ward has established herself as one of the nation’s most promising young authors.

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