‘I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders as even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavaties. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today’s my birthday’.
Sing, Unburied, Sing strikes to the core of the American story as it revolves around a poor family living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi weaving past and present seamlessly together in a hauntingly dark tale. The novel opens up with Jojo – the beating, pulsing heart of the novel. He is a young boy having to learn to grow up quickly in a confusingly loving but hostile environment. His mother, Leonie, who was a teenager when she had him, is a drug addict and the father of her children, Michael, is a white man, currently serving time in prison. To add another layer of confusion, Michael’s cousin killed Leonie’s brother in a hunting ‘accident’ when they were younger. It’s fair to say that Michael’s family are particularly hostile towards Leonie and their children, refusing to have anything to do with them.
On the other hand, Jojo lives at his grandparent’s house – Leonie’s parents – in a remote farmland area. Opening with the death of a goat, Jojo tries to prove to his grandfather, Pops as he’s affectionately named, that he can be relied upon to help out. It’s his thirteenth birthday and already he’s had a lot to learn in a short amount of space. Not only is the goat scene at the beginning of the novel shockingly grotesque, but it foreshadows a theme that will pervade the rest of the novel – death. We learn quickly that Leonie’s grandparents dote on Jojo and his younger sister, Kayla, but that their grandmother – Mama – is slowly deteriorating from cancer. When the narrative shifts to Leonie’s perspective, we learn that the ghost of her brother – someone with whom Leonie was so close – has never left her side. She feels him most keenly when on drugs. As she battles with the wish to become a better mother and her deep addiction to drugs, we witness the vulnerability she tries to hide so much.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is, in effect, a long car ride. The narrative time of the novel is maybe only a few days, but this is so easily forgotten in the length and breadth of the history that is encompassed within its pages. When Leonie finds out that Michael is due to be released from prison, she organises a car with her friend (also a drug addict), packs a few belongings and snacks into a couple of shopping bags and forces Jojo and Kayla to come along to welcome their absent ‘stranger’ of a father. Along the way they make a detour to a local dealer and Kayla suffers a long and torturous sickness that almost takes a turn for the worse. Not only is the atmosphere within the car hostile, but so is the environment through which they are driving. Mississippi is an oppressive force within the novel and the past cannot be abated as it seeps into every pore of the present. As they make their way towards Parchman prison farm, which was notorious for its inhumanity during slavery, the past gets stronger and stronger. A new ghost appears. One that has strong links back to Pops. The strands of history and the present gather momentum in a devastating finale that highlights just how recent and present America’s dark past is.
Jesmyn Ward’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted book was a close contender to win in my opinion. Although the subject matter was so dark, Ward’s poetic and lyrical prose uplifted the narrative, not just highlighting moments of human brutality and selfishness but also our innate ability to be compassionate, loving and fiercely protective of others. In the wake of his robbed childhood, Jojo is having to navigate the difficult terrain of being a black man in southern America, of love and violence, and of familial relationships. One of the things that really stands out for me after reading Sing, Unburied, Sing a few months ago is the beautiful bond between Jojo, Pops, Mama and Kayla.