“All the comparisons to Beloved are warranted” – Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

jwsusThis one has been out for a while already (I’m not really on top of my game, am I?) and it’s just as beautiful and damning and compassionate and significant as any/all of the torrent of previous reviews have suggested: it’s a gorgeous, sumptuous read as far as the prose is concerned – for all its three hundred pages, it’s a pretty quick read – while the content is more like a body-blow of pain and injustice that you’re unlikely to forget any time soon. It’s justifiably won the 2019 National Book Award; I’ve met academics who are already incorporating it into their syllabi; you’ve got to get a copy.

Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a working class mixed-race family: JoJo, aged almost thirteen, the son of a black woman (Leonie) and a white man (Michael), who lives with his little sister, Kayla, and his black grandparents (Pop and Mam), and is spurned by his white relatives who don’t want to know about the ‘n*****’ their son took up with. Leonie wants to do okay by her family, but she’s been messed up since her older brother, Given, was killed (and the murder covered by up Michael’s father), plus she’s got problems with drugs and she’s too much in thrall to Michael (and vice versa) to do much about their kids. When the book opens, Michael, who’s been in jail since before Kayla was born, is set to be released, so Leonie packs up the children and drives to Parchman – the same prison where her father was wrongly incarcerated as a young man – to meet him. The narrative tracks them over the couple of days’ journey there and back, in the course of which, amongst other events, JoJo (and Kayla) is confronted with Richie, the ghost of a boy his Pop (Leonie’s dad) looked out for when he, in turn, was inside. Like JoJo, Richie wants answers, but those answers won’t come easily. Meanwhile Mam is dying of cancer and Leonie’s got to work out how to help her without further alienating her eldest child, and Michael is trying, in vain, to get his parents to accept his family.

The text alternates narrators: we get JoJo, Leonie and, intermittently, Richie, and the result is a varied and compassionate account of this family’s problems. Leonie, despite her spiraling addictions and pretty consistent neglect of, and violence towards, her children, is no villain; even Michael – who, no soon as he’s reunited with his kids, beats his three year-old daughter – is imbued with some degree of grace. Ward is as empathic a writer as I’ve come across: she lays out the fuck-ups and flaws of her characters as clearly as she can and then contextualises them in a way that imbues them all (well, most of them) with humanity and grace. The bad guys here aren’t the parents who’ve been dealt a shitty hand (and who respond, mostly, about as badly as any of us might in similar circumstance) but those that enact the structural inequalities and bigotries that reinforce the patterns of, for instance, Leonie’s life: Michael’s father, the lawyer that deals meth to his clients, the police officers who brutalise a child on the roadside for being poor and black. (If you ever meet anyone who’s read that particular scene without crying, walk away.)

Any Cop?: Sing, Unburied, Sing is a wrenching look at family, memory, trauma and race in America past and present – it’s as gritty as it is beautiful, as hard as it is tender. All the comparisons to Beloved are warranted: this is a book that will – that ought to – be remembered.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

 

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