Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Review by Corinne Donnelly
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward follows thirteen-year-old Jojo on a road trip with his mother, Leonie, and his little sister, Kayla, to pick up his ex-convict father from prison, and bring him back home to his grandparents’ farm in Mississippi. The plot may sound simple, but it is hefty in scope. Narrated in first person from three different perspectives, one of which is a ghost, the novel presents an intimate look into the minds of three generations of voices. At just under 300 pages, don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy read. The novel is denser, and has far deeper meaning, than it seems.
Ward’s stunning use of language creates passages ripe with metaphor. She also has a firm grasp on the dialect of the deep South, which adds authenticity and helps set the tone. Paragraphs are so rich and detailed that it takes intent and focus to discern important topics and themes, which can be a good and bad thing. Pacing is slow at times, but makes the gripping moments all the more significant.
The novel expands upon many divergent topics and themes, from addiction, racism, and child abuse, to family, innocence, and salvation. Jojo’s mixed heritage plays an important role too, as both sides of his family are forever haunted by the murder of a beloved son and brother caused by hate and bigotry. Past injustice and deep sorrow have brought pain to the adults in the older two generations, and they take it out on the children, sometimes in subtle ways, but more often than not, through blatant abuse. They also keep secrets from each other, which they justify, but not without a sense of guilt.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward takes time to read and digest, just as it takes time for Jojo’s family history to be revealed to him. When all the pieces fit together, it brings a sense of relief. The past cannot be changed, but it can be better understood. With knowledge comes the capacity for transformation, and with that, hope. Ward’s ambitious sophomore novel hopefully assures she will be an enduring voice in the years to come.