Literary fiction is very hit or miss for me. I’ve read quite a few that I desperately wanted to like, but I just couldn’t. There’s this level of pretension found in the writing of many such titles that I find difficult to stomach. However, I have been fortunate to find some absolutely gorgeous books in the genre, a handful of which are now among my very favorite books on the planet.
“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
So where did Sing, Unburied, Sing fall in this mixed bag of a genre? While it doesn’t rank among my favorite books ever, I did very much enjoy it. There’s something about reading a novel that shares your life in some way, whether that entails a shared heritage or setting or lifestyle, that just speaks so deeply to readers. For me, that comes in the form of novels set in the American South. Ward writes stories firmly rooted in the South, and though this was the first of her novels I’ve read, it won’t be the last, because she does a phenomenal job of capturing both the beauty and the repugnance of the rural South.
“Can’t nothing bother me when I got my hands in the dirt, he said. Like I’m talking to God with my fingers.”
I love where I live. It’s idyllic. As I type, I can look out my window and see sunlight dappling green grass through the boughs of evergreens and reawakening oaks. Goats dance and chickens scratch and my niece is chasing our big black dog. Azaleas are blooming riotously, in hues ranging from crimson to white, mingled with lavender and fuchsia and cotton candy pink. Berry bushes and grape vines and fruit trees are budding, promising all the fruit we can eat by summertime. I’ve been so incredibly fortunate in my life. But there is so much of the South that harbors seeds of darkness. Poverty and ignorance and racism still abound in certain pockets of Southern states. Meth labs and malnourished children are far too common. While this book takes place in Mississippi instead of Louisiana, this felt like a story that I could find scattered throughout my state, if not in my home parish. Ward did an amazing job of peeling back the beauty that I see everyday and exposing the ugliness that I’m aware of but yearn to ignore.
“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart.”
There are three narrators in this story, and two of those sparked radically opposing sentiments within me as I read. We meet Jojo on his thirteenth birthday, as he helps his grandfather slaughter a goat in celebration. Yeah, kind of a rough way to start your teenage years. Jojo loves his grandparents and they love him very much, but the love of his life is his little sister; they are each other’s refuge, safe harbors in the storm that is their life. I’m thankful that my brother and I had a beautiful upbringing where we didn’t have to be that refuge for each other, but we’re incredibly close, so I really appreciated the inclusion of this deep bond between siblings. Where are his parents, you might ask? Well, his dad is in jail. But his mom is right here, living with her two kids and her parents in their small house. Jojo can’t stand either parent, and has taken to calling them by their given names, Leoni and Michael.
“I hope I fed you enough. While I’m here. So you carry it with you. Like a camel.’ I can hear the smile in her voice, faint. A baring of teeth. ‘Maybe that ain’t a good way of putting it. Like a well, Jojo. Pull that water up when you need it.”
Which brings me to another of the three narrators: Leoni. I can’t remember the last time a character outside of the fantasy realm incited feelings so close to rage and hatred within me. Leoni is one of the worst mothers I’ve come across in fiction. There are plenty of parents in literature who are cruel and abusive, but Leoni’s abuse is rooted in casual neglect. You can tell that she’d be far happier if she had no children, and would probably leave them in a heartbeat if she had somewhere else to go. There is love for her children within her, but it’s buried deep beneath her self-absorption and her wild love for Michael. Theirs is a star-crossed love, because Leoni is black and Michael is white, and Michael’s father is insanely racist. Ward approaches racism with respect and deft honesty, and we see all the ways that racism has plagued Jojo and his family across generations.
“Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”
Most of this story takes place over a road trip, when Leoni bundles up her kids and takes them to pick up their father when he’s released from prison. At this prison, the family picks up more than just Michael. A ghost from Jojo’s grandfather’s past hitches a ride back home with them. And I mean a literal ghost. This is one of multiple magical realism elements in this story. Jojo can hear the moods and thoughts of animals, and they sound almost like songs. He suspects that his little sister has the same gift. Leoni sees the ghost of her dead brother every time she gets high, though she’s never told anyone and has no idea whether she’s truly seeing him or if he’s a product of the drugs. The ghost that hitches a ride home with them is straight from Pap’s stories, and for the first time, Jojo can see something supernatural instead of merely hearing things. I loved these magical realism elements, and I feel that a Southern setting makes them more believable because our culture is so steeped in both religion and superstition.
“Growing up out here in the country taught me things. Taught me that after the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants […] since Mama got sick, I learned pain can do that too. Can eat a person until there’s nothing but bone and skin and a thin layer of blood left. How it can eat your insides and swell you in wrong ways.”
One final facet of the story that spoke to me was how Ward handled grief. We see it take many forms, from wild weeping to stunned silence, and each of these forms felt reasonable and real. Grief looks different for everyone, and we have a brilliant representation of that in this book. I’m not sure that it’s a book I’ll be rereading, but it’s definitely a story that will stick with me for a long time. If you want to explore both the beauty and the ugliness of the American South in the form of fiction, you should definitely pick up a novel by Jesmyn Ward.
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