Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward had been on my radar for some time since she was was awarded the National Book Award for Best Fiction last year. Once again, I lucked out and was able to tap into my connections at my high school to secure a free hardback copy. I only had the book in my possession for four days and believed that I could read it over the course of two weeks. Unfortunately, I misjudged and am currently suffering from a book induced hangover. I stayed up all night until I finished it, because right when I thought that I had the book figured out and could predict at least the course Ward was trying to steer me, I was thrown for a loop. I could not put the book down until I was able to gain my bearings and unfortunately, that did not happen until the crack of dawn the next morning.
Nevertheless, I absolutely loved this book. I have not been moved to tears in a while, but I must say that Sing, Unburied, Sing broke my dry spell. The story is told from three different perspectives. The third did not present itself until the middle of the book when I was ready to go to sleep and thus is the reason why I currently have bags under my eyes. It tells the story of the truest definition of a dysfunctional rural Mississippi family. Leonie, is a drug- addicted self-centered and abusive mother to her teenage son , Jojo and her three year old daughter Kayla. She spends half of the book wrestling with feelings of jealousy of her children’s brother and sisterly bond, constant reminders of her emotional failures as a mother, and her desire to be free of her responsibilities and live a care free life no matter how self-destructive that might be. Her children’s father is white, also a drug addict, and is serving a three year sentence in prison. Against the wishes of her father and dying mother, she rounds up her children and takes a road trip with her friend Misty to pick up her children’s father when he is released from prison. From the start, JoJo does not want to leave the confines of his grandparent’s farm. Although poverty robs him of materialistic items, he describes life on the farm as one enriched by the love from his grandmother, wisdom of his aging grandfather, and comfort of the animals. He does not trust his mother and has good reason not to, for while on the trip, not only does she care little to provide the basic necessities for her children such as food , medicine when Kayla takes sick, or compassion when JoJo is wrongfully handcuffed and taunted by a cop but it soon becomes apparent at least to JoJo that his mother has planned this trip to obtain drugs to sell along the way.
Ward had me hooked with this story line alone, but using “Riv,” Jojo’s grandfather to seamlessly intertwine their current stories with a horrific tale that occurred in a brutal and sadistic racist Mississippi of the 1930s, and revealing that part of the reason JoJo’s mother is in such a dark place might be the result of a violent racist incident that happened in the racist Mississippi of the 21st century elevated the story to another level. On top of that, just like Toni Morrison, she takes the opportunity to add a layer of the supernatural in which the characters are all haunted by the spirits of strong young black men with promise that died at the hands of white supremacy.
I have to warn you that there is a lot of symbolism in this book. There were times that I wanted to be free of the metaphors and alliterations and just jump to the next major turn of events. Needless to say, this was a true work of art in the exploration of want, frustration, the desire for love, and freedom in a world of racism and hate. It was definitely worth a read.
Let me know what you think!