Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is a dark, harrowing story lifted by it’s lyricism and strong characters. Our group had all read the novel, and many were deeply affected by it.
It’s set in the deep south of the US, in a fictional present-day Mississippi town that’s scarred by its history of racism, poverty and intergenerational trauma. Driving the narrative is a road trip, but we’re also taken back through time to visit key moments in the lives of the family at the centre of the novel.
It’s a haunting read. The central character is Jojo, who we meet first on his 13th birthday, ready to show his grandad – Pop – that he’s become a man. They’re going to kill a goat to make a special birthday meal, but the blood, the smell, the fear are all too much for the boy. He’s an interesting character: we see him in relation to his steadfast Pop, his largely absent mother, Leonie, and as a father-figure himself to his little sister Kayla. How the family came to be so broken is told through the eyes of Jojo and Leonie in alternating chapters, and also through the eyes of Richie.
There’s a deeply mystical aspect to this book. Richie is a ghost, a character from Pop’s past, when they were in the infamous Parchman prison together. The chapters that detail their tragic story are really poignant: they are heavy with the legacy of America’s racist past. Their story forces the reader to question how that world ever existed, and if it has really been left in the past. In the present day Leonie, Jojo and Kayla drive to the same prison to pick up Michael, the children’s dad. It’s a trip fraught with danger and very realistically presented.
None of the characters are definitively good or bad, they are each painted in their full complexity. We see grief, anger, resignation and violence and we try to understand how people get pushed into behaving in certain ways by terrible circumstances. For all it’s bleakness this felt like an important book that our readers were grateful to have read. The beautiful writing and startling honesty will stay with our group. Many have already been inspired to seek Ward’s other books.