Jesmyn Ward, whose National Book Award winning novel “Savage the Bones”, took the literary world by storm, has returned with her equally powerful new novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing”. Centering almost entirely around one African-American family living nearly self-sufficiently in a tiny town in Mississippi–the author herself lives in such a town–the novel rotates points of view amongst those in the family, an aging set of grandparents, Mam and Pop, their daughter, Leonie and her dead brother Given, and Leonie’s two children, Jojo (around fourteen) and Kayla, who’s just past babyhood. Mam is dying of cancer; she’s been taught about the healing power of all kinds of herbs by women who preceded her, and had hoped that her gifts may have been passed along to her mostly selfish daughter, Leonie (they aren’t)—but they are given to both Jojo and to Kayla. The spirt world is entirely real and very credible in this novel.
When still a young man, Pop had been incarcerated in a prison called Parchman, which is, in essence, a huge farm, where mostly black men are little more than slaves working the land, based clearly upon such a real prison/farm in Alabama; perhaps there’s one in Mississippi as well. Pop is a survivor; while he’s in prison, he meets and tries to protect a very young fifteen year old boy, who’s stolen food to feed his starving siblings. Throughout the novel, Pop tries to explain to his grandson (who increasingly resembles him), Jojo, the horror of the prison, and the story of how he tried to save Richie, the young boy there, from certain harm and probable death.
The dead but restlessly spirited Richie, and Mam and Pop’s dead son Given, are the unburied who come to sing, in essence, in Ward’s gorgeously written novel. And only Mam, Jojo and Kayla have the ability to communicate with the spirit world, as well as with animals and plants, trees, rocks, the natural world. Ward is able to persuade the reader that these characters do, indeed, possess such special gifts, and the reader knows that, somewhere in the novel, Mam will die but will reencounter her “dead” son Given in the process.
Much of the novel takes place in Leonie’s falling apart car, where she and her best friend Misty (who’s white), drive up to Parchman to pick up Leonie’s (white) husband/fiance/boyfriend Michael, who’s just been released. Kayla gets sick en route; Jojo takes care of her as we are privy to Leonie’s real indifference to the well-being of her two children. They stop en route to pick up some meth from a friend of Misty’s, which will be partial payment to a lawyer who’s sprung Michael from prison. Stopped by a white cop on the way home, the latent violence of Southern cops towards blacks is implied more than delineated, but it’s a very powerful scene. This journey, in essence, to and from Parchman, is the core of the novel, and allows the reader to see and understand both Leonie’s indifference to her children, and the strong bonds between her two children. This car ride is a journey to and from nowhere, in a sense, but Ward’s writing is so incredibly poetic and powerful that the ride seems to be a nearly apocryphal one.
Richie appears to Jojo and to Kayla on this journey, as his spirit has restlessly remained at Parchman; he sees Pop as his own father, in essence, and his spirit hooks a ride with this group back home to Mam and Pop: the dead Richie and the dead Given argue about which of them will take the body of Mam to the next world; this section constitutes Ward’s finest writing of all; Mam’s death and those surrounding her, Jojo and Kayla and the two dead spirits, is haunting and beautiful and astonishing. That a dead family member comes to take Mam seems almost logical, and Mam has clearly been expecting at least Given. I’ve read no more powerful death scene in contemporary literature; the intermingling of the living, the dying, and the dead is breathtakingly beautiful and magnificently written.
Ward writes in broad strokes, keeping to the essential ideas, the essences of her characters. She thus avoids extraneous details and sticks to the powerful, the symbolic, the necessary. This type of writing (Patti Smith and Anita Brookner both write/wrote thus) can be very effective when done well. And Ward’s use of language is musical and powerful and poetic concurrently. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is one of the finest novels of the year; it feels like myth, and that’s no mean feat.