Sing, Unburied, Sing

Someone commented in a review that Jesmyn Ward’s new book, Sing, Unburied, Sing outshone her other books. Having read those other books, I doubted whether that was possible.

Set in a fictional town in her native Mississippi, the story revolves around a trip. Thirteen-year-old Jojo and toddler Kayla live with their African American grandparents – Pop who centers the family and Mam who is dying of cancer. Kayla clings to Jojo as a parental figure. Pop, who has spent time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, tells Jojo stories to help him learn about life.

When the children’s white father is to be released from Parchman, their drug-addicted mother, who moves in and out of their lives, shows up demanding that they accompany her and her girl friend to the penitentiary for his release. Uninvited guests from the spirit world join them – her long dead brother who shows up to Leonie when she is high on drugs and Richie, a boy prisoner befriended by the grandfather when he was at Parchman who shows up to Jojo. Both spirits recall a past that forms their present. Richie follows them home and forces Jojo to ask hard questions of his grandfather Rivers.

Well-drawn individuals, both living and dead, and complex relationships are placed in a setting that becomes another character in the story. Jesmyn Ward’s way with words makes for a book that lingers when put aside between chapters and long after the last page is finished.

A doubter no longer, I agree this is her best book yet. In an interview, she said it took three years to finish – three years well spent.