Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

“There’s things you think you know that you don’t.”
“Like what?”…
“Home ain’t always about a place. The house I grew up in is gone. Ain’t nothing but a field and some woods, but even if the house was still there, it ain’t about that.” Richie rubs his knuckles together. “I don’t know.”…
“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived…it’s a wall. It’s a hard floor, wood. Then concrete. No opening. No heartbeat. No air.”
“So what?” I whisper….
“This my way to find that.”
“Find what?”
“A song. The place is the song and I’m going to be part of the song.”

Thirteen year-old Jojo wants nothing more today than to be with Pop—for Pop to see him as a man and for his mother Leonie to leave him at home where Mam has only a few days left.  Instead, he’s being dragged north with his three year-old sister to retrieve his father from the state penitentiary, with a stop along the way for his mother and her friend to retrieve the drug that pulls her farther and farther from her family. When they finally reach their destination and return home, Jojo’s father Michael isn’t the only thing the family brings back from Parchman. On the way back, Jojo begins to see the form of a boy named Richie who served time in Parchman with Pop many years ago and whose story only Pop knows the end of.

Pacing and word choice
As the book opens, Jojo is at home with his Pop, Mam, and little sister Kayla—the pacing slow, but not quite languid, the stuff of long conversations. When his mother Leonie insists the children come on the trip across the state to pick up their father in Parchman, the language stretches—the words paving the way for the long drive. There is, in fact, very little in the way of action through the entire 3/4 of the book. Instead the long stretches of road serve as the backdrop for character studies of Jojo and Leonie. As the mother and child return home, the writing becomes almost frenetic—the language shorter and choppier as the action takes over, the river of words becoming foaming rapids, pulling the reader frantically to the conclusion. This pacing adds to the atmosphere of the climax scene, leaving the reader as breathless and wrung out as Leonie and Jojo themselves. It’s not surprising to hear that Ward is a professor of creative writing as her spot-on pacing in this book is masterful.

The word choice in Sing, Unburied, Sing is also perfect for the book. The grammar—dropping articles, “sleep” for “asleep,” making plural words singular—transports the reader immediately to somewhere in the rural South without making the book difficult to read or having to rely on gimmicky written Southern accents. The descriptions place the reader in the deltas of Mississippi with the sun blazing its curtain call as it drops below the horizon. It’s descriptive without being flowery, so while there were times I went back to re-read a paragraph just for the word choice, this is not a book that will annoy or trip up readers who care less about these things.

Character study
Sing, Unburied, Sing is character-driven rather than plot-driven. The book opens with Jojo, imitating his Pop, trying to show he can be a man, even as the killing of a goat turns his stomach. Over the following days, Jojo will become a man in the blink of an eye—a blink that Leonie misses.

Alternating with Jojo’s chapters are those of Leonie’s. Jojo’s perception of his mother is limited—as the child of a drug addict, he has been let down or left out so often it is hard for him to see any good left in his mother. Her chapters serve to humanize her, to bring the reader to empathize with her, to hope with her when she tries, to feel her disappointment when she fails. It is a testament to Ward’s writing that she can make the reader love even this flawed woman, dying by her own choices, particularly given that in interviews she expresses her own distaste for Leonie as a mother.

Less prominent initially as he is left behind on the journey, Pop is a character the reader comes to love. He is the solid, the constant, the care left in Jojo’s life. He is the reason that when Jojo becomes a man, he will become like Pop rather than his own father Michael. And yet, as the reader discovers, even this quiet, solid man is deeply flawed, haunted by choices and a mercy he chose to administer many years before.

Finally, there is death. Death literally lurks in Sing, Unburied, Sing, appearing as Leonie’s murdered brother Given who appears to her only when she is high; as Richie, a boy inmate when Pop was in Parchman himself; as a bird with scales; as Mam wasting as cancer snacks on what’s left of her.

Black death
In many ways, it is not merely death that lurks in the corner of each page, but specifically Black death. There are many ways throughout U.S. history that white people have not typically had to die—we have not been lynched, we have not been cut into tiny pieces while still alive, pulled from our beds to face false accusations, had our medical needs neglected until it is too late when our cancer is finally found. It is not just death, but Black deaths that creep silently closer in Sing, Unburied, Sing until they are the forefront, as heavy in the trees as grackles on a line. Like the cancer invading Mam’s body, you know death is lurking, you see it in the pages but you do not realize the magnitude. While you were looking at one particular manifestation, the others were coming up silently.

While many of the manifestations of death in the book are quite obvious—Mam’s cancer having nearly eaten through her, gone-too-soon Given, the ghost-bird-child Richie—Leonie’s character in many ways is a walking death. Leonie, child of Mam and Pop and mother-too-soon of Jojo and Kayla, was introduced to drugs by her longtime boyfriend Michael. She struggles, she fights, but by the time the reader meets her, her universe of available choices is hamstrung by her drug addiction. I am not suggesting that Leonie bears no responsibility for her own choices, but there is poignancy is seeing Leonie’s life becoming walking death after having been introduced to drugs by her white boyfriend. That it is black lives who are often disproportionately impacted by white choices.

What is Mercy?
With the rising specter of death comes the question of mercy. What does it mean to be merciful in the face of death? What is the difference between getting to choose the mercy of death versus having it thrust upon you? When mercy comes, does it comes differently for lives well lived versus those barely started?

And what of the mercy-bringer? If you were being merciful, is there still guilt? And how much? Are you more guilty if you weren’t asked to be merciful and less if you were? Does that actually matter?

None of these questions were answered, leaving an unsettled aftertaste when the reader finishes. Of a meal that filled, that mostly satisfied, but of a flavor you’re trying to grasp even as it fades.

In Sum
Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a book that sits lightly or that passes as you turn the page of your next book. Ward raises questions that remain unanswered, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions of death and mercy, life and guilt. For readers who prefer more plot-driven books, Sing, Unburied, Sing may not be the best book. This is also not a book for someone who dislikes ambiguity.

For readers of literary fiction who love a character study, who are looking to read more from authors of color, who are willing to be unsettled and still love a book, I highly recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing. I know I’ll be pushing Salvage the Bones up my reading list after having read this offering of Ward’s.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster) Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Date read: August 29, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

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