A Balm to Many Wounds, with Jesmyn Ward (A Book Review of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was like having a deep, deep breath lodged in the cavity of my chest, something I held on to for its entirety. Ward’s newest novel isn’t for the faint of heart either, but for someone who’s strong of will, someone who can understand the gravity of what it means to be healed, and what it means to need healing, specially at a time when the world just feels too heavy.

I got to know Pops and Jojo first, in a barn where they skinned a goat, on the family’s farm in rural Mississippi. This scene is the first of many where tenderness becomes the thread with which binds the two, young and old, tender Pops with his words, sparse and overflowing with love for the young one, the equally tender Jojo.

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Before anything else there was already loneliness — something that seemed to walk all over all of the characters, permanent in their skin. Except perhaps for the youngest one, Jojo’s younger sister, his light, Kayla.

I came upon Sing, Unburied, Sing unknowingly, only that I knew I had to read Jesmyn Ward. From her Mississippi herself, I remember listening to an interview she had on NPR where she first discussed her first book, Men We Reaped (Amazon | Indiebound). The book was dedicated to men in her life — her uncle, her brother, several friends — whose deaths have had a profound impact on her.

“I see history, I see racism, I see economic disempowerment, I see all of these things, you know, that come together, or that came together, sort of in this perfect storm here in southern Mississippi, and I feel like that is what is bearing down on our lives.”

Ward grew up in DeLisle, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, a place “ravaged by poverty, drugs and routine violence.” Knowing this about Ward, her history then made reading her new novel a little easier, albeit the fact that I was still holding my breath for the majority of it.

I didn’t know that this was going to be another book haunted by ghosts of dead people, as I was still recuperating from George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Amazon | Indiebound) which was ok, in spite of the insurmountable grief it illustrated.

A few scenes later, Leonie enters the picture. She is Pops’s daughter, Jojo and Kayla’s mother. Brother of Given, who died after being shot by racist white people (they called it “accident”), wife to Michael (white, in jail for drugs). She’s addicted to meth, and she sees Given every time she’s high, always watching her.

And then there was Mama. Sick in bed, still seeing stars and ocean and plants around her.

Have I mentioned how difficult this was to read?