February 5, 2018 by Sarojini Seupersad
There was a point while reading ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ when I said out loud, to the book, “Why don’t you just…” because a character was not doing what I wanted him to do. There are many moments like this in the book; frustrating moments in which the reader is rendered impotent and must sit back and watch awful things happen to characters who have no control over what’s happening around them. That you’re so drawn in is a testament to Ward’s writing, her sense of place and her deep knowledge of her characters.
This is, essentially, a story about a multi-generational family in Mississippi coming undone under the weight of racism. It’s the story of thirteen-year-old Jojo and his three-year-old sister Kayla, who live with their grandparents, Mam and Pap, on a farm in Mississippi. Jojo’s mom, Leonie, only cares about getting high and about Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father, and Leonie is gone more often than she is present in her children’s lives. When Michael is scheduled to be released from prison, Leonie decides to take her two children on the long drive to pick him up from the state prison. Weaved into this story, is a ghost story that follows the entire family. But at its heart, ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ is about the generational pains of injustice and how none of us can escape it. Like any town in America, racism still exists and terrible things can and do happen to good people. Some of the characters are difficult to like, but you want them to succeed anyway, if not for themselves, then at least for their children.
Told through a first-person lens, the story starts with Jojo on his thirteenth birthday, but continues chapter through chapter from the point of view of several different characters, like Pap and Leonie. A deep sadness cloaks the entire book, from beginning to end. There is not one moment of joy in this book. Even when Jojo is spending time with his grandfather Pap, it’s while they’re slaughtering an animal or talking about sad family history, which is why the writing feels so real. The plot, the writing and the pacing are all purposeful and deliberate, but characters like Leonie are difficult to care about – even though you understand her pain. During the road trip, you know something terrible is going to happen and when it does, you know none of the characters are going to be the same. Most of the situations feel real (aside from the ghosts of course – which really, is just a device to funnel generations of pain through, which I think works) and the way Ward deals with themes of history, family and memory is not precious, but authentic. The climax isn’t as surprising as it’s supposed to be but it is tragic and leaves none of the characters untouched. This subject matter in a lesser writer’s hand wouldn’t have worked but Jesmyn Ward’s knowledge of Mississippi, her empathy for her characters combined with her timing and lyricism makes for a heavy, lasting warning for generations to come: Fight your demons, before they fight you.