Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

That was when there was more good than bad, when she’d push me on the swing Pop hung from one of the pecan trees in the front yard, or when she’d sit next to me on sofa and watch TV with me, rubbing my head. Before she was more gone than here. Before she started crushing pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit between a skinned knee.

Past and present collide is a sweeping tale of one Black family in the American South. Jesmyn Ward brings to life the poignant struggles of addiction, incarceration, loyalty and race in her newest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. The main narrative revolves around JoJo, an adolescent boy who has taken on the role of caregiver for his toddler sister, Kayla, now that their mother, Leonie, is fully beholden to the drug that she snorts to fill the hole in her heart that remains following her boyfriend’s incarceration.

Three years ago, I did a line and saw Given for the first time. It wasn’t my first line, but Michael had just gone to jail. I had started doing it often; every other day, I was bending over a table, sifting powder into lines, inhaling. I knew I shouldn’t have: I was pregnant. But I couldn’t help wanting to feel the coke go up my nose, shoot straight to my brain, and burn up all the sorrow and despair I felt at Michael being gone.

When Leonie is high she is visited by her brother Given who was shot and killed in a hunting accident that smells strongly of a racially motivated murder. She longs for those moments, the burning of the drugs that help to stem the ache of loss that still pulses in the background for her brother and the injustice he faced.

The visits from her brother serve to remind her of the family she belongs to, the parents she rejects for their apparent complacency in the face of their son’s death and the judgement they heap upon her for the nights she spends away from her children in a drug filled stupor.

But she cannot escape them fully as the very visions she craves are a link to her past; her mother is a healer and practices ancient medicinal techniques, which she once presented as an olive branch to her young daughter. Leonie keeps her visions a secret, rather than turn back toward her family, fearing they are solely a result of the drug habit she so desperately relies on.

It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can’t hit and let that anger touch another. The one I’m never good enough for. Never Mama for. Just Leonie, a name wrapped around the same disappointed syllables I’ve heard from Mama, from Pop, even from Given, my whole fucking life.

Seeking a parental figure, Jojo connects with his grandfather, Pop, reveling in his epic tales of the past, particularly of his time behind the bars of Parchman prison, the very same bars that surround Jojo’s white father, Michael.

In a rare instance of celebration, the entire family is gathered for Jojo’s birthday, which, even then, is shrouded with sadness as the group must surround Mam’s bed as she slowly succumbs to cancer. From the other room the phone rings and Leonie rushes to answer it, pulling herself further from her children and back to the one person she claims loves her.

Micheal is an animal on the other end of the telephone behind a fortress of concrete and bars, his voice traveling over miles of wire and listing, sun-bleached power poles. I know what he is saying, like the birds I hear honking and flying south in the winter, like any other animal. I’m coming home. 

This news is a spark that sets the story ablaze. Jojo’s birthday celebration is quickly forgotten, replaced with the immediate need to pack the car and set out to Parchman where Leonie hopes to reunite her family. Jojo’s resistance is palpable because to him his family, Mam and Pop and Kayla, belong at home where they will care for one another.

The journey is fraught with disaster: drugs, illness, poverty, the sticky suffocating heat- vibrant reminders of the plight of the American South. With their arrival at Parchman, the narrative comes full circle when Jojo is visited by a vision of his own- a young Black boy named Richie who was incarcerated along side Pop.

I want to tell the boy in the car this. Want to tell him how he pop tried to save me again and again but he couldn’t.

It is through this third narrative that the story is rounded out, reaching a new depth that exposes the haunting truths behind Pop’s tales and Jojo’s family’s future. Ward crafts an epic novel likened by many to an esteemed group of well known classics; however, Sing, Unburied, Sing tells a significant and unforgettable story all its own


A review copy of this title was provided by Scribner.


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