From the opening pages of Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s (Salvage the Bones) new novel, you know you’re in for a unique experience among the pecan trees and dusty roads of rural Mississippi. This intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South.
Ward shifts perspective among three characters: 13-year-old mixed-race boy Jojo, who lives with his mother and toddler sister, Kayla, in the home of his black grandparents, Mam and Pop; Leonie, Jojo’s black mother, who struggles with drug addiction and sees visions of her murdered brother; and Richie, a young boy who died decades earlier and whom 15-year-old Pop knew when they were at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Jojo’s white father, Michael, the son of a man who abhors Leonie because she’s the black woman “his son had babies with,” has been in Parchman for many years. When Leonie learns of Michael’s release, she, Jojo and Kayla drive across Mississippi to pick him up. But the trip, which includes unexpected illnesses and a stop for drugs that Leonie wants to sell, is more eventful than the family had anticipated.
Visitations from dead people, tales of snakes that turn into “scaly birds” whose feathers allow recipients to fly—this material would have felt mannered in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ward skillfully weaves realistic and supernatural elements into a powerful narrative. The writing, though matter-of-fact in its depiction of prejudice, is poetic throughout, as when Jojo says that, as Michael hugs him after a fight with Leonie, “something in his face was pulled tight, wrong, like underneath his skin he was crisscrossed with tape.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important work from an astute observer of race relations in 21st-century America.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Jesmyn Ward for Sing, Unburied, Sing.