Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
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.