This is my review of “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.
This imaginative and unconventional novel links the experiences of two young black boys who suffer ingrained racial prejudice, two generations apart, in the US state of Mississippi. In the opening chapter, thirteen-year-old Jojo tries to prove he is becoming a man by helping “Pop”, his black grandfather, to slaughter and skin a goat. The explicit, unflinching description of this is a foretaste of what is to come. Jojo’s main concern is to care for his little sister Kayla, since his mother Leonie is neglectful between working long hours and “snorting crushed pills”, with his white father Michael is serving time in Parchman. This is a penitentiary in real life, notorious for its harsh treatment of black prisoners as farm labourers. The second boy, Richie, sent to Parchman when less than ten years old, is at first protected to some extent by “Pop” when also imprisoned there in his youth.
The bleakness of the accumulated circumstances, together with the tendency of two main characters to vomit as nauseam, came close to putting me off reading this, but I was drawn in by Jojo’s appealing character and the relationships between the family members. When the point of view switches to Leonie, she triggers more sympathy than one might expect, proving to be an immature mother infatuated with her partner Michael, rather than inherently evil, trapped in the vicious circle of wanting to love her children but not knowing how to show it, particularly since Jojo and Kayla have formed such a tight bond which excludes her. She is in fact traumatised, still grieving for her brother who was murdered in a racist attack.
I appreciate that the use of a first person narrative for Jojo, Leonie and Richie creates an authentic sense of immediacy and transports us directly into their thoughts, but I agree with reviewers who argue that too often their southern idioms interwoven with some vivid, quirky descriptions slip into the articulate, literary style of the author herself, which does not ring true in the context.
The theme is sufficiently powerful not to require the devices of magical realism and the ghosts which increasingly haunt the novel. Again, I can see that the title, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” reflects Jesmyn Ward’s desire to show how the suffering of past generations of slaves and exploited black Americans still burdens the present, with all its ongoing injustice, but this does not require the inclusion of ghosts, unless perhaps it is to indicate enduring superstitions.
Jesmyn Ward has a talent for creating a strong sense of place : “some kind of bad earth. Like the bayou when the water runs out after the moon or it ain’t rained and the muddy bottom, where the crawfish burrow, turns black and gummy under the blue sky and stinks”. Her lyrical prose has been compared to William Faulkner’s, but her style tends to become overblown, particularly towards the end of the book which seemed to me to run off the rails somewhat, with a rather contrived, mawkish ending. To admire this novel without major reservations, I think one has to believe in ghosts which can only be seen by those with psychic powers.