Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

Book cover

This book was hard for me to read at times, but very much worth reading. Ward evokes a strong sense of place in the rural Mississippi setting–while the story takes place more or less in the present, the plot is beset by both literal and figurative ghosts of the history of the land. The actual (historical and current) Parchman Farm prison plays a key role in the story, and one of the most extraordinary passages of the book is the description, by the ghost of a young man killed at the prison, of his experience being released from linear time and awakening at various moments throughout its history from before European settlement to the present. I think this passage, and to some extent the entire book, is an intentional evocation of fellow Mississippi writer Faulkner’s famous line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (I haven’t actually read any Faulkner myself.) Ward does a deft job of drawing lines between slavery, Jim Crow, and modern concerns such as police violence toward Black men and drug addiction, without being too overt and without losing the through-line of the novel’s plot.

On a similar note, I loved Ward’s integration of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe into the background of the story. It’s so hard to write good fiction that draws on major current or recent events (maybe Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is another good example). One of the most striking and moving lines of the book comes in a recollection of the event by Michael, who was working on the rig as a welder at the time. I don’t have it at hand but to paraphrase, he says that when aquatic animals began washing up dead on the Gulf Coast, the corporation refused to admit a connection and said that sometimes it happens that a lot of animals just die at once for mysterious reasons. And, he says, this frightened him, because he remembered that people are also animals. I’m not sure if this was Ward’s exact intention, but for me this was a really chilling echo of Black Lives Matter.

Ward draws heartwarming portraits of human affection, in sometimes extremely adverse conditions, in the relationships between Kayla and Jojo, Jojo and Pop, Mam and Pop, and Pop/River and Richie. If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that the “good” characters–particularly Jojo and Pop/River–are drawn as so thoroughgoingly good that it becomes more difficult to empathize with the other characters. I actually think that Leonie is a really powerfully drawn character–heavily flawed, but in ways that become more understandable as you learn more of the backstory. But it took some ongoing mental effort for me not to just feel frustrated with her in comparison to the saintly Jojo and Pop/River. Perhaps this is intentional on Ward’s part–to put the reader through the challenging experience of empathizing with a deeply flawed character (who is, as well, a standpoint character). But I think I would have appreciated more complication to the characters of Pop/River and Jojo.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars