“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.”
My Thoughts: Jesmyn Ward‘s latest novel is a beautifully written piece on family. Poignant but realistically harsh, Sing, Unburied, Sing shines the spotlight on more than a few of the difficulties of growing up poor and non-white in the south. Her imagery and her characters are so vivid that they leave indelible impressions on readers.
For as lyrical as her prose is and as vibrant as her characters are, the story itself, while important and fascinating, did not entice me to read it. I found myself finding reasons not to pick up the book and continue reading, plus I found I had only enough attention to last one chapter. Some of this is due to the fact that nothing about Jojo’s story is easy. Between the racism, the abject poverty, the drugs, and the cancer that afflict one or all of his family members, the reader gets hit with wave after wave of despair and darkness, making frequent breaks a requirement.
While I could muscle through Jojo’s story, important because it allows non-white readers the chance to somewhat understand what it feels like to live in this country as a person of color, the magical realism elements of the story left me completely uninterested. These scenes seemingly come out of nowhere and do not mesh with the rest of the narrative. In addition, one might even feel that they are not necessary to complete Jojo’s story. While the ghost is the medium through which Jojo and the reader learn Pop’s story, these scenes provide little else in the way of enhancing the novel and made it even more difficult a chore to finish reading the novel.
There is no doubt that Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important story for understanding the racial, social, and economic divides that not only still exist but seem to be growing ever farther apart. There are scenes that will quite literally haunt me forever in their bleak realism. In such an honest novel though, the magical realism does not sit well. It adds nothing and, if anything, makes it easier for readers to dismiss the entire story as fanciful and therefore less realistic than it is. As such, I wanted to love this critics’ darling but ended up struggling through it to the point where I was relieved when I was done. It is an unfortunate response to a novel which is as timely as it is vital to building empathy within society.