Winner of the National Book Award in 2017 and currently short-listed for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, among a multitude of other awards, and not a single negative review from my fellow bookstagrammers, this is one of those books that I just knew I had to read. So I bought the book, but it sat unread for months on my shelf (because life happens). When I saw it on the “popular books” audiobook display at the library right as I was going to need a new one, I took it as a sign and snatched it up.
“…and even though it’s a laugh, it doesn’t sound like one. There’s no happiness in it, just dry air and hard red clay where the grass won’t grow.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of a family in rural 21st century Mississippi, with echoes and memories of bygone years and generations. Told from three perspectives, we learn a lot about this family over what is, technically, only a few days. Jojo is 13 years old and struggling, but dealing with, his mother’s disinterest, his father’s absence, his grandmother Mam’s grave illness and his 2-year-old sister Kayla’s well-being. All the while Jojo is trying to follow and learn as much as he can, from stories of the past to day to day workings of the farm, from his grandfather, Pop. Leonie is Jojo’s mother, internally struggling with everyone’s expectations of her, including her own wishes to be a better mother, but consistent only in her inability to put those needs above her own (particularly her drug use). She has never gotten over her brother Given’s death (murder) years before and she too is struggling with how to handle her mother’s impending death. And last, we have Richie, the ghost of a young boy who died while an inmate at Parchman, the same prison at which Pop was incarcerated and where Jojo’s father is currently serving time. When Leonie packs up Jojo and Kayla to go pick up their father as his sentence is ending, Richie “tags along” on the way home, where heartbreaking details about the connection between him and Pop emerge, throwing the ugly history of the American South into sharp relief.
This novel is less action based than it is illuminative. It’s a mix of an intimate family saga, ghost story, and a searing snapshot of the legacy of slavery and racism. Even though the events of the modern-day story take place over only a few days, we learn so much during that short time and from the memories of our characters. The portrait this novel paints of rural Southern life today is profound and affecting. Although years, decades, have passed since the time Pop spent time in Parchman with Richie, we see that though the form has perhaps partially changed, the reality of racism in the South is the same. Pop’s stories to Jojo, Leonie’s memories, and Richie’s emotional pain, all work together to give a sweeping elucidation to an often ignored aspect of the American experience. Both within and outside of racial contexts, issues of grief and loss, interracial couples/families (and generational intolerance therein), the presence and use of drugs, “un-traditional” and imperfect family structures and relations, fear-laced interactions with law enforcement, and the general tension of race and limited income/family resources are all adroitly and palpably illustrated. In addition, there is an entire spiritual and connectedness aspect of the book that has tendrils throughout, but really comes into its own at the end. Mam and Pop each have their own connections to the earth and the spirits, but it’s not something that Leonie was ever interested in or showed affinity for, except for visions of her brother Given when she is high. But Jojo and Kayla seem to have inherited the ability. When Richie makes himself known to Jojo and Mam is in her final days on earth, the ghosts and spirits of the past, including Given, descend upon the family, both giving closure and opening old wounds in equal measure.
As far as the writing, Ward’s ability to show these inequities and stressors, to make the reader truly feel them, without directly spelling anything out, is unparalleled in anything I’ve read before. The language is evocative and lyrical, caressing your ears and washing over your brain with matchless grace. To be honest, it’s some of the most lovely, expressive writing I’ve ever read. And as I mentioned, I did listen to this as an audiobook. To that end I know listening and physical reading books are two different experiences, at least for me, but to be honest this turned out to be a great one to listen to. The narrators (there was a different one for each POV) were absolutely phenomenal – their tones and cadences perfect for this poetic style of writing – and really brought the book to life, allowing me to truly fall into the story, in a way that I don’t think I would have just from reading.
This novel tells the story of a part of America that many people would like to pretend doesn’t exist, isn’t happening, or is a relic of the past. And that’s why it’s so important that as many people as possible read and recognize and share its message. It’s very hard to read at times, it hurt my heart in more ways than I can list (not least of which because for all that it ends with a message of hope, there is not near enough being done to make that hope turn into a reality). There are difficult themes, characters that may be hard to understand or sympathize with, perspectives that you may take issue with. But again, that’s why it’s such an important book. It’s a picture of reality, and will continue to be so, until real support is given to truly affect the circumstances, the environment. Only then will change be possible.
I looked and looked for some quotes to give you that would sort of encapsulate the beauty and lyricism of the language Ward uses, but it’s just not possible. I mean yes, there are many gorgeous passages, but every time I tried to write them here I have trouble deciding where to start and end them. Every time I thought I had a cutting spot, I realized that there was more on either side that I just didn’t want to leave out. And I realized that’s just part of the beauty of this novel, and it has to all be taken together in order to really give the full effect. I don’t want to lessen or cheapen the impact by chopping it up. So instead, I’ll reiterate the exquisiteness of the writing and urge you to read for yourself. And in the meantime, I pulled out a few short quotes that help illustrate that, wrapped up amidst all the longer magnificence of her words, there are also many hard, important, truths:
“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
“Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”
“Ain’t no good in using anger just to lash. You pray for it to blow up a storm that’s going to flush out the truth.”
“It’s like a snake that sheds its skin. The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always the same.”