The paperback edition of this has sat on my shelves since it was published when I was so eager to get hold of a copy and I feel bad that it has taken me so long to get round to reading it. Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction in her home country. It seems incredible it took until 2017 for this to be achieved. Her earlier win came with “Salvage The Bones” (2011) which I also haven’t read.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, the title and front cover made me think I would be in similar territory to Robert Jones Jnr’s masterful “The Prophets” (2021) but this is a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community. This makes it a powerful read.
At first I was a little resistant. I thought it might be a novel about bad parenting using thirteen year old Jojo and his neglectful mother, Leonie, to narrate sections and I wasn’t sure I fancied that, despite the quality of the writing. A road trip (which I can also be ambivalent about in fiction) to collect Jojo’s white Dad from prison surprised me by really drawing me in even as it emphasised the poor parenting skills as the adults focus on getting high . Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, are forged closer together during this time because of their strong feelings for one another and their mother’s indifference. They leave at home Jojo’s grandparents, Pop, who is filling the gaps Leonie creates through his care and his stories of the past and Mam, rooted in mysticism and the supernatural but now in terminal decline as cancer ravages her body. The other side of Jojo’s family is dominated by a racist who wants nothing to do with his son’s choice of partner. The ghosts we carry around with us become palpable as the narrative progresses leading to an extraordinary last third which so impressed but which wouldn’t have functioned had not the character development in the opening two-thirds been so strong.
It is rare that I am drawn to a book both so lyrical and spiritual and on completion I experienced that shift in my perspective which you get from reading top-quality fiction. It definitely had some difficult, challenging moments both for the characters and the reader and it cannot be consistently described as enjoyable but it certainly provided a powerful experience and it will stay with me for a long time.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2017.
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