by Jesmyn Ward.
I remember picking up Jesmyn’s debut novel, Salvage the Bones, on a whim. I knew nothing about it. But I was in need of something to read, and it magically appeared — destined to mesmerize me from start to finish. Yes, it is that good.
So, I will admit that I was hesitant to pick up her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. I find that when I come across a book that enchants me, I often grasp for other books by the author and am frequently disappointed. I didn’t want to be disappointed in Jesmyn’s newest release. I wanted to continue to savor the poetic beauty that Salvage the Bones brought me six years ago. Alas, I eventually broke down and bought her new book, deliberately setting it on my bookshelf and letting it tease me for several months. I would often reach for it, but at the last moment I would pull my arm away and grab for another. No. Not yet. I’m not ready, Jesmyn. I am not ready to knock you off that pedestal yet.
Finally, as we teetered toward the end of this tumultuous year, I decided it was time. 2017 sucked, so I might as well let it end in disappointment. I unsteadily opened to the first page.
In fact, I wasn’t disappointed. On the contrary, I found Sing, Unburied, Sing to be even more engaging, lyrical and moving than Salvage the Bones. Even now, two days after turning the last page, it still lingers with me, unsettling and raw. Rather than letting a disappointing book bring a disappointing end to a disappointing year, I find myself unwilling to pick up another book. I want this masterpiece to be the last thing I read in 2017. I want this disappointing year to end on a high note, a turning point for better things to come in 2018. Bless you, Jesmyn. My faith is re-kindled.
Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in a rural coastal Mississippi town, post Hurricane Katrina. It is the story of JoJo, a black teenager raised primarily by his grandparents. It is also the story of his drug-addicted, mostly absent, abhorrently-selfish mother, Leonie. JoJo’s disappointment and resentment toward his mother is strong and pervasive. We feel his bitterness practically drip off his skin. However, we also bask in the tenderness he feels toward his grandfather, Pop, and his adoring baby sister, Kayla. JoJo seems wise beyond his years, caring for Kayla in a way his mother never would or could. His compassion toward Kayla washes over you in big waves, making Leonie’s irresponsibility even more unbearable.
Clearly it doesn’t take long for the reader to develop a resentment toward Leonie and her selfish, drug-addicted ways. But she suffers too, and we gain insight through her own narrative into her own failings, grief and self-loathing. But it doesn’t serve to kindle any empathy toward her. Leonie and her cast of misfit friends continue to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
The tension between JoJo and Leonie drives the pace of the book, as the narrative moves back and forth between the two. The reader joins them on a road trip to Parchman Farm Penitentiary to pick up JoJo’s father, Michael. Ironically, both JoJo and Leonie are haunted by ghosts on the journey — Leonie by the ghost of her brother who was shot as a teenager, and JoJo by the ghost of a young black youth imprisoned with Pop decades ago. These ghosts, seeking deliverance from those that mourn them, might actually serve to bridge the gap between mother and son. However, the bitter silence between mother and son not only fails to unite them, it serves to drive the wedge between them even deeper.
This is a simultaneously a story of love and loyalty, and a story of betrayal and loss. It is also a story of race, of poverty and of drug addiction. Sadly, it is an American story. And it leaves the reader haunted, much like JoJo and Leonie. We are haunted by racism that ties the hands and buries the hearts of the JoJo’s of the world. It is time for our nation to let the unburied sing their songs, to remind us of a past that we no longer want to continue, and to deliver us to a future we can only dream of today.
So run, don’t walk, to your local independent bookstore and purchase this powerfully moving, poetic story. Let it start your new year off on a good note.
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