Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 2017; 289 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Life choices and consequences manifest themselves in restless spirits in Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. The characters drift from fictional flesh-and-blood to shadows that only certain characters can see at certain times (usually the most inconvenient times), and gentle weaving of these spiritual visits with the developing plot of the characters living with their pasts creates a novelistic song with an echoing chorus.
Ward introduces us to Jojo, a 13-year-old boy in southern Mississippi whose black mother works just enough to support a meth habit, whose much younger sister worships him like a parent, and whose white father is a convict upstate. Jojo isn’t the only one to tell us of this family; we hear from his mother as well, but we also hear from a former inmate of Jojo’s maternal grandfather, Pop. This ghost, by the name of Richie, takes us all the way back to the first generation of the story’s beginnings, Pop’s generation, and his struggles with poverty that lead to Pop’s incarceration as well. Through the willing and curious audience of Jojo, we listen along as Pop talks about his time in jail, in episodes repeated and never concluded, in parts out of order as Pop moves around the awful conclusion in every telling. Eventually, however, Pop is forced to tell the end of the story when the ghost Richie rides back from the prison with Jojo as Jojo, his sister, and their mother drive up to pick up Jojo’s father, Michael, when Michael’s sentence is served. Without the prompting of Richie, we might never have learned of the ending of Pop’s time in prison, but Richie starts his crusade early in the journey, with only Jojo to witness Richie’s progress back to Pop:
”I guess I didn’t make it.” Richie laughs, and it’s a dragging, limping chuckle. Then he turns serious, his face night in the bright sunlight. “But I don’t know how. I need to know how.” He looks up at the roof of the car. “Riv will know.”
I don’t want to hear no more of the story. I shake my head. I don’t want him talking to Pop, asking him about that time. Pop has never told me the story of what happened to Richie when he ran. Every time I ask about it, he changes the subject or asks me to help him with something in the yard. And I understand the sentiment when he looks away or walks off, expecting me to follow. I know what Pop’s saying: I don’t want to talk about this. It wounds me.
Despite the arduous journey of picking up Michael, stopping for drug pick-up and sale, and the violent illness of Jojo’s sister throughout the trip, the haunted family and their ghost make it back to Pop, who, with Jojo’s prompting, gives Richie the “how.” When the “how” is revealed the entire family feels the power of it, from the farm animals to Jojo’s mother to Jojo’s dead uncle (another ghost that sits in judgment of Jojo’s mother when she is high and who was killed in a “hunting accident” by a cousin of Jojo’s father) to Pop’s wife, who is dying of cancer. The story is complicated, but made understandable and captivating by Ward’s musical narrative and strong use of rotating the first person accounts of Jojo, Jojo’s mother Leonie, and Richie. Their voices are similar but distinctive enough to fill in each other’s gaps, and all are set in place with the foundation of Pop’s voice, who, it might be said, is the protagonist of the story, as told through his daughter, his grandson, and Richie. This patchwork of piecing together of three voices to show Pop’s voice is the achievement of the fine weave of the plot and the language, and is a wonder to witness, page by page.