I was honored to attend a book signing and reading by Jesmyn Ward at Lemuria Books on September 26, 2017. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’d never read anything by Ward before attending the event. She was on my list of authors to read, I just hadn’t made it around to her yet (it’s a terribly long list). Fortunately for me, I have now.
Blurb for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon & Schuster) – In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.
I don’t have a real review prepared for this novel, but I did want to share just a few things. Ward’s writing is beautiful, and her treatment of material in the book is simply wonderful. The reader finds themselves riding in the car, smelling the scents (both good and bad), feeling the heat, watching the ghosts, alongside the narrators in the novel. The structure, while not unique, is managed by powerfully swapping between two primary narrators with dramatically different points of view, interspersed a few times with a third, very different, narrator. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a study of family dynamics, race, Southern culture, growing up and growing old, the drug epidemic, and more. This novel also contains, near the end, one of the most powerful death scenes I’ve ever come across in all of literature. A definite must-read novel of 2017.
Since her reading in Jackson, it has been announced by the MacArthur Foundation that Jesmyn Ward has been named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded one of the famed Genius Grant for 2017. From what I’ve seen and read, she deserves every bit of the success and recognition. Congratulations!