Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (2017)

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.

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.