In my opinion, Jesmyn Ward is one of the most gifted writers in America. This is the second book of hers to have won the National Book Award for fiction. It was also listed as one of the NY Times ten best books of 2017. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is beautifully written, poetic in its cadences and in the voices of the characters who live along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. As in her other two books, the people of the coast are crushingly poor and disadvantaged. The setting is the same town of Bois Sauvage that was in her first book, “Savage the Bones.”
The story is told in three distinct voices, each narrating in the first person. The most realistic and touchable of the three is 13 year old Jojo whose white father, Michael, is in an upstate penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. The inmates are expected to work on the land under very tough conditions. Jojo’s black mother is an addict who neglects her children, though she isn’t devoid of feeling, but she has lost the touch of how to be a mother. Jojo and his three year old sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Pop and Mam who is dying of cancer.
Michael is about to be paroled from jail and Leonie, the children’s mother, gets it into her head that she wants to take the children on a road trip up state to the penitentiary to pick up their father. What a road trip it is. Along for the ride is Leoni’s friend, Misty who adds to the stress by insisting they take a side trip into the back woods to pick up some drugs. Throughout the trip, the children are forgotten occupants of the back seat, neglected and unfed. Jojo does his best to care for Kayla, who responds only to him, and day and night will not leave his side.
Michael’s release adds confusion to the return trip, and with him comes the ghostly presence of a 12 year old boy named Richie who had been sentenced for stealing meat many years before. Richie has some connection with Pop who became his protector when he was sentenced to the same prison.
The characters are all beautifully drawn and their relationships and hard lives all too real. The lost souls who inhabit the novel along with the family are drawn from elements of voodoo and a mixture of African folklore and Catholic beliefs. This requires the reader to step out of reality and understand how the real and supernatural are entwined. I found this difficult, and I did not enjoy the book as much as I did Ward’s previous novels. I still recommend the book for a look at the ongoing problems of poverty and race relations in the United States, and especially for Ward’s brilliant writing.