Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing
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Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power - and limitations - of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

Review

Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intensely lyrical, bruising novel. Jesmyn Ward writes the kind of sumptuous prose in which every line thrills you with its poetry – even the rippling effect of air on a car window is imagined into vivid life, the shuddering glass as ‘alive as a bed of molluscs fluttering in the rush of the tide: a shimmer of froth and sand.’ To read this book is to be immersed in it. Open the cover and step inside another world where the unburied roam, tethered to the earth, and where the children are not okay.

As with Ward’s award-winning debut, Salvage the Bones, Sing follows a teenager who will break your heart with their resilience and tenderness in the face of harsh circumstances. Thirteen-year-old Jojo and his younger sister Kayla live with their grandparents in rural Mississippi. When their father, a white man, is released from prison, their mother Leonie packs the children into her car with a friend. Together they set off to collect a man she loves with a toxic passion. This story is narrated by three characters: Jojo, the self-warring and drug-addicted Leonie, and a ghostly hitchhiker whose connection to the family is revealed in the stories Jojo’s grandfather shares about his time spent working on Mississippi’s Parchman prison farm during America’s Jim Crow years.

Ward draws on numerous literary traditions in this multi-layered and referential read. She skilfully employs supernatural elements to heighten the novel’s themes –from the literal ghosts that haunt our living characters, to the magical traits Jojo inherits through his grandmother’s family line. Ward mourns America’s history but does not allow it to rest. In doing so, she powerfully speaks to the contradictory state of American life today. An immensely moving and gripping examination of the corrosive power of trauma, Sing is one of the best books I’ve read all year.


Bronte Coates is the digital content coordinator and the Readings Prizes manager.

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