A haunting, beautiful and discomforting novel about the lasting repercussions of racism in America.
And now it’s time for Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. A National Book Award finalist and a novel that has generated more hype than your average power station. Her 2011 novel Salvage The Bones (I haven’t read it) won the National Book Award so it’s not surprising that there’s been a great deal of anticipation for Sing, Unburied, Sing.
The critics have lavished it with praise… but will I?
Spoilers: Yes. I lavish.
KNEE JERK OBSERVATIONS
This is the second book I’ve read this month – the first being Carol Zoref’s Barren Island – that opens with the dismemberment of animals and the removal of their innards. I wonder if gutting and slicing animals will become a new trend in literary fiction. A book won’t be considered great if it doesn’t feature at least one scence of animal slaughter.
Sing, Unburied, Sing provides a first person perspective from 13 year old JoJo and his mother Leonie. The chapters alternate between the two characters: JoJo self aware, trying to be brave and yet still burdened with innocence and his mother, Leonie, weary, sad her world view laced with the drugs she takes.
There’s actually a third first person perspective that runs through the novel… but more on that below.
Leonie’s partner Michael – she’s black, he’s white – is in prison and on the verge of being released. In terms of plot the novel is essentially the road-trip to pick Michael up and bring him back home.
There’s also a hint of the fantastic:
It’s more than just a hint, amongst other things Sing, Unburied, Sing is also a ghost story. That third first person perspective is owned by the spirit of Richie, a once “guest”of Parchman, a prison farm, that also accomodated JoJo’s grandafther. Richie was killed in an escape attempt, the circumstances of which are slowly revealed throughout the novel.
My one quibble so far with Sing, Unburied, Sing is that JoJo does not sound like a 13-year old boy. I get that he’s mature beyond his years given the circumstances of his upbringing, but there are times when I forget that he’s a child. Here’s an example:
On the way back from prison, having picked up Michael, they are pulled over by a cop. This is a problem because Leonie is still in possession of a bag of meth which she is compelled to swallow, knowing there’s a tiny hole in the bag. The cop, hearing they’ve just come from Parchman, reacts by cuffing everyone including 13-year old JoJo. It all gets a bit tense, JoJo is nearly shot, the car is searched and the meth reaches Leonie’s stomach. Then, with the tension at breaking point, 3-year old Michaela, upset at how her brother has been treated, coupled with the fact that she has been sick for most of the road-trip, chunders all over the cop. It’s a moment of over the top slapstick in the midst of a situation that could easily have gone south. It’s gripping and laugh out loud funny.
Here is Leonie feeling the full impact of the meth coursing through her body. I especially love that last sentence – delicious and damned indeed.
The Gist of It
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the third novel I’ve read this year that uses ghosts to talk about race in America. The first was George Saunders Man Booker winning novel Lincoln In The Bardo. One of the ghosts of colour in that book provides an astonishing soliloquy describing the dehumanising horror of slavery. The second novel was White Tears by Hari Kunzru where a ghost of colour uses an unwitting white boy to take revenge on the wealthy white family whose ancestors saw to his death. And now we have Sing, Unburied, Sing where the ghost of colour is a young boy, Richie, who was sent to prison at a young age, met River Stone and was killed during an escape attempt. He wants closure, something that can only be achieved if River tells the truth of how Richie died. River is JoJo’s grandfather and because JoJo and his sister, Michaela, and his mother, Leonie, can see dead people, the ghost of Richie is able to tag along, compell JoJo to ask his pop about what happened on that day he died. And the answer to that question – which I won’t spoil here – doesn’t give Richie the release he’s looking for because like all things touched by race in America there are no easy answers.
Race, identity politics, the alternative right, we throw these terms around, treating them like catchphrases, because we want to show how politically savvy and aware we are. But what Ward shows us in this brilliant novel is that race – the issue of slavery, of Jim Crow Laws of the incarceration of black men – is something that impacts people today, something that destroys lives, that can fracture the bond between a mother and son. All tangible and real and tragic. And yet despite the subject matter Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t an angry book or a call to action, rather it’s a reminder that America remains haunted by its past, a past that it increasingly refuses to accept or address.