Jesmyn Ward’s uncompromising and lyrical new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is unmissable. In the contemporary deep South of the United States, Jojo is thirteen, and trying to understand how to become a man in this world. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself all those around her: she is black, her children’s father is white. The family is at constant risk of dissolution, embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of their circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her bags and children into the car and drives north into the heart of Mississippi, repurposing America’s modern classic road novel into a rural 21st Century.
Ward was a writer that I admired greatly for her work Men we Reaped, a memoir written when she turned around and saw all the funerals for all the young black men that she and her family had to attend. It was brutal and beautiful. There was a lot of power in her bearing witness to this experience, and it was written in this lyrical, devastating style. The fiction form of Sing, Unburied, Sing, seems to have given Ward a little more space to soar. It is the same distinctive style of writing but there is a little more air, a little more magic to explore. The suffocating feeling that the brutal reality of Men we Reaped brings no fault of the work, and Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a lighter ride: this is just the difference between the forms.
The bleakness of the content is balanced out by the richness of Ward’s language, and the sheer magic that Jojo is witnessing. There is a poetry in the pain, as Leonie sees when waking in the car, feeling rough:
“The world outside the car is a green, shaky blur, the colour of Michael’s eyes, of the trees bursting to life in the spring. The memory that eased me up out of the dark, the memory of jumping from that cliff, is a buzzing green, but there is none of that inside of me. Just some water oak limbs, dry and mossy, burned to ash, smouldering. I feel wrong.”
The fact is that the world that Jojo and Leonie live in is uncompromising, the heard of what Margaret Atwood calls the not-buried heart of the American nightmare. This is the world that the American Dream disregards, conveniently ignores. Forgotten lives where poverty actually makes their daily reality almost timeless, unseen and unacknowledged. The same racism that unfairly sends Jojo’s grandfather to jail is the same that kills Leonie’s brother years later, and the same that causes Leonie to almost blackout from fear when they are routinely pulled over by a traffic cop on their trip. Jojo is a young black man, his innocence has to be proven. Being poor looks the same across three generations: Jojo’s grandfather was taken to the same penitentiary that Jojo’s father is decades later. The cyclical patterning is devastating.
This wrenching novel is not to be missed because it digs deep. This is not suffering for some sort of poverty porn but an experience that we must bear witness to. Ward gives them life and breath, and a kind of magical reality that threads throughout their lives and her writing. It is a majestic, tough novel.