“Sing, Unburied, Sing”
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)
I might have said in this review that “Sing, Unburied, Sing” was a powerful novel which will surely win awards. This turns out not to be necessary. While I was reading “Sing,” it was announced that Ward, who won the National Book Award in 2011 with “Salvage the Bones,” has won again with “Sing.”
In this, her third novel, she returns again to her fictional home place, Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, on the coast, modelled after DeLisle, where Ward grew up.
“Sing” is, like two other contemporary novels of black life in America, “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi, beautifully written, highly imagined and excruciatingly painful to read.
Ward has created a family in contemporary Mississippi, three generations.
Mam and Pop, the grandparents, live simply, tending animals and garden, with Pop a capable, strong man, proud and self-reliant, and Mam likewise a model of strength but with the added skills of herbalist, midwife and benign mystic. Mam is dying of cancer and communicates with the spirits, the Mothers.
In spite of their strengths, these admirable people cannot control the world around them. Integration has come to Southern Mississippi, but with unexpected consequences. Their son, Given, is shot on a hunting trip by a white acquaintance and the murder is covered up as a hunting accident.
Leonie, their daughter, has fallen in love with Michael, the cousin of the man who shot her brother. His parents are implacable racists, and the interracial couple, who face plenty of difficulties in Mississippi, get nothing but scorn from Michael’s parents.
Besides her unsparing anthropological dissection of contemporary Mississippi society, Ward is justly praised for her lyrical, soaring style. Descriptions of the natural world, forest and stream, are astounding.
But Michael and Leonie cannot see that beauty. He is finishing up three years at Parchman Prison on a drug conviction and Leonie is addicted to cocaine and meth.
Parchman is in the Mississippi Delta, and in conversation the characters agree that North Mississippi is a much tougher, more racist place than the coast. Nevertheless, Michael will take the wheel as they drive home. It would seem that driving without a license, with drugs in the car, would be a bad idea in any part of the state, but they do.
On this hellish road trip to pick up Michael on his release, Leonie has both transported and used drugs, endangering her own freedom and her children’s safety. Her daughter, Kayla, a toddler in the back seat, is hungry, sick, vomiting, feverish and Leonie not only ignores her but is angry when Kayla seeks comfort with her 13-year-old brother, Jojo. The little girl has learned, over time, that Jojo is the reliable source of warmth, food, water, and love. We are expected to feel that Leonie does truly love her children, but doesn’t know how to “show” it. We see, as her mother acknowledges, that she “ain’t got the mothering instinct.”
In fact, in their drug-addled and irritated state, both parents neglect and abuse the children. Michael and Leonie are madly in love with one another and with getting high, but there is not enough love to go around.
One could say they have a disease, caused, if one were generous, by pernicious societal forces, but this reader, infuriated, lost respect for them and their disgusting choices and would call child protective services.
Jojo, being raised to be a good man by Pop, takes care of his little sister and is in many ways already an extraordinary person. He has inherited some of Mam’s gifts and can see the ghosts of the restless dead, especially the teenage Eddie, who decades earlier had been in Parchman with Pop, who had served time for “harboring a fugitive,” that is, helping a friend. Leonie, when high, can see the ghost of her brother Given.
These spirits, who died violently, wander. They cannot get “home.” Ward’s fictional world is alive with signs, portents, wandering creatures, that most of us cannot see.
In conversation, Eddie educates Jojo in some of the transcendental mysteries of time and space—time is a vast ocean and everything is happening at once, and on the crucial importance of love.
Eddie recounts some of what he has learned in 50 years as a homeless ghost. He died in the prison and when he “woke up” was trapped there.
“I spent so many turns of the earth at the new Parchman. I despaired, burrowed into the dirt, slept, and rose to witness newborn Parchman: I watched chained men clear the land and lay the first logs for the first barracks for gunmen and trusty shooters. I thought I was in a bad dream. I thought that if I burrowed and slept and woke again, I would be back in the new Parchman, but instead, while I slept and woke, I was in the Delta before the prison, and native men were ranging over that rich earth, hunting and taking breaks to play stickball and smoke.”
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is an extraordinary book. You will not read another like it. In what I do not really see as a contradiction, I admired it immensely but found it too disturbing to enjoy.
Powerful it is, but for me it did not provide the catharsis witnessing great pain in art can bring. There is great pain in “Oedipus the King” or “King Lear” or “Death of a Salesman,” but one leaves these having experienced a kind of cleansing, a purging of the emotions of pity and fear. The audience to these narratives feels pity, watching any human being suffer, whether that character is a king or a lingerie salesman. The fear one feels comes from feeling, in the classical examples: if that can happen to a man as powerful as a king, just imagine what can happen to a person like me. In the modern example, “Salesman,” fear arises from a sense of identification with the character—Willie Loman and I are a lot alike and what happened to him could easily happen to me.
Instead of pity and fear, I felt anger and frustration.
Also essential to generating the emotions of pity and fear is a sense of inevitability: fate cannot be avoided.
With “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” I did not feel that sense of inevitability. I felt that Michael and Leonie, intelligent, healthy, able-bodied young people, had the power to change their lives and yet continued to make bad choices, failed to turn their lives around.
There is plenty of pain and suffering in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” but misery, even in great heaps, is not tragedy.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.