Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Reviewed by Lucy Unwin

This is the most grittily realistic book I’ve read in a while — it just happens to be a ghost story. Somehow, despite its fantastical content, Sing, Unburied, Sing feels distinctly believable.

The plot is simple; it’s a road trip, there and back again. Thirteen-year-old Jojo, and his little sister Kayla, are dragged across Mississippi by their drug-addicted mum, Leonie, to pick up their dad from prison. At home the two children are mainly looked after by their beloved grandfather, Pop, so being in their mum’s care has its own challenges. It also happens that Parchman prison is the same place Pop spent some years as an innocent teenager. While they’re there this time, Jojo encounters the ghost of one of Pop’s fellow inmates, who then hitches a ride back with them to confront Pop and find out the truth about his death.

And this happens in the most vivid and claustrophobic of settings.

In the swampy heat of Bois, where animals are skinned in a shed out back, and popular young black guys still get shot when they win a game they weren’t supposed to, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that the violently dead are creeping around and dripping from the trees. Instead of feeling fantastical, it feels painfully true. The dead are bearing down on the living. It’s just another brutal reality of the life there, metaphor or not.

But it’s the love that shines incandescently from the pages here, blasting through all the oppressive threat and tension and lighting the novel up from within. Jojo’s love for his toddler sister Kayla and hers for him, Pop’s for his grandson, his wife Mam’s for her daughter Leonie, despite everything, and Leonie’s inexpressible love for her children. As Mam explains to Jojo: Leonie does love them, just her love for herself and their dad, Michael, confuses that.

Leonie is a heartbreaking character. She is a terrible mum, a disappointing daughter and a million miles from the person she wants to be. Her actions speak of nothing else. But half the book is written from her viewpoint, and from there we see the almost-actions, the missed moments, the pulsing desires she never manages to express, the intentions that don’t make it out of her brain and into the real world. The most painful is the deep, confused love she feels for Jojo and Kayla that she’ll never express, and they’ll never feel or realise. These missed connections hit as deeply as the bigger, wider tragedies of the novel.
Kayla, incidentally, is the most vivid unspeaking character I can imagine — despite only being old enough to say ‘eat eat’ and ‘no!’ her physicality steps from the page. She is a fully formed character, with her own arc to follow. One of the most touching moments in the book is down to her too. As well as seeing ghosts, Jojo can hear the thoughts of animals, and that translates to understanding the things Kayla can’t yet express. In a scene where her dad is yelling at her and the toddler Kayla is screaming, Jojo says:

“I know you mad. I know you mad. I know you mad, Kayla. But I’m going to take you outside later, okay? Just sit up and eat, okay? I know you mad. Come here. Come here.” I say this to her because sometimes I hear words between her howls, hear her thinking: Why don’t he listen why don’t he listen I feel! I put my hands under her armpits, and she squirms and wails.

And the ghosts. It’s not just Richie, Pop’s onetime fellow inmate, but Leonie’s murdered brother too. And as your eyes and imagination adjust, you get the feeling they’re surrounded by spectres. At once comforting and deeply creepy, sad and threatening, the ghosts fill the novel with subtlety and loss, just like Jesmyn Ward’s living do. So much haunts her characters, that the ghosts seem an insubstantial addition to that, simply echoing back the living hell and hopelessness. Dragging them further down with the weight of history and violence.

But while all that history does hang heavy over everything in this novel, while it does drip from the trees, there is something in Jojo, something in Kayla, and perhaps a little something in all the other characters too, that leaves you with a kernel of hope. And those heartbreaking, touching moments; both the missed connections and the ones that hit deeply home, mean the lasting impression is one of love.

Lucy Unwin blogs about books at those precious stolen moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin.

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury, 2017). 978-1408891049, 304pp., hardback.

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