The characters in this novel by Jesmyn Ward are haunted— sometimes literally. Leonie, Given, who was killed when he was 18. And JoJo, Leonie’s son, is haunted by an even older tragedy, one that confronts him when he and Leonie go to Parchman prison to bring home JoJo’s father, a white man named Michael.
JoJo is 13 years old and devoted to his grandparents and his little sister, Kalya. His feelings about his mother are more ambiguous. Leonie’s drug addiction and general selfishness keep her from taking good care of her children. As JoJo, Leonie, Kayla, and Leonie’s friend Misty travel to Parchman, JoJo frets over Kayla, and Leonie frets over the meth they’re carrying.
This is a difficult book about a difficult situation. It doesn’t wince at the violence, death, and pain these characters have faced—and are still facing. Ward carefully depicts the details of these character’s lives in poetic language that gives us a view into their souls. And these characters’ souls are full, often full of pain at present disappointment and past loss.
Sing, Unburied, Sing won this year’s National Book Award, and I can absolutely see why. It stares horror in the face and has compassion for all who are touched by it, even when they turn to inflict horror on others. Still, I didn’t personally love it as much as I’d hoped, possibly because I read it over several weeks on my lunch break, which meant I didn’t give myself time to get immersed in it. It’s the kind of book that I think needs immersion to fully weave its spell.
I did, however, respect the book immensely. I liked that Ward doesn’t flinch, and I especially appreciate that she doesn’t go for a storybook resolution. There was a point when I thought that there would be some sort of lesson about remembering history and telling the stories and how that frees the spirits that haunt, bringing peace to JoJo and Leonie and their family. To a degree, that does happen, but the haunting is too immense for such a simple solution. The family at the heart of this book is not just haunted by personal ghosts, but by all the lynched, the enslaved, the raped, and the misused. They carry the burden of history, and there’s no quick and easy way to erase that.
I suppose, though, that each telling is a bit of an exorcism—one step closer to bringing peace to the restless spirits. That’s why the book’s title calls on the unburied spirits to sing.