Jesmyn Ward’s third novel returns to the same setting that served her so well in both her debut Where the Line Bleeds (2008) and the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones (2011): the fictional rural town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s the kind of place that worms its way into a person’s being; thirteen-year-old Jojo, one of the novel’s three narrators, is described by another as ‘carry[ing] the scent of leaves disintegrating to mud at the bottom of a river, the aroma of the bowl of the bayou, heavy with water and sediment and the skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes, and shrimp.’ It’s also the kind of place that eats away at its inhabitants’ souls, rife with poverty, a meth epidemic, and racism. ‘This ain’t the old days,’ shouts a white father at his eighteen-year-old son, slapping him across the face and calling him a ‘fucking idiot’ for shooting one of his black schoolmates when the latter wins a bet. The dead teenager – a high school football star and a crack shot with a bow and arrow (he bet his murderer that he could use this to take down a buck before the rifle-toting white boy could) – was Given, brother of Leonie (the second of the narrators) and uncle to her son Jojo, or he would have been if he’d lived long enough to meet his nephew.
Sing, Unburied, Sing – the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction – opens on Jojo’s thirteenth birthday. Eager to prove himself a man, he’s helping his grandfather, Pop, to slaughter a goat: ‘I want Pop to know I can get bloody.’ Given all we know about the perilous situation for young black men in America, it’s impossible to read this opening scene without a tremor of fear. There by the Grace of God goes Jojo. So many others before him cut down in their prime: his uncle Given, of course, and Ritchie, a young man who was in Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, with Jojo’s grandfather back in the day. Ward has addressed this subject before: her memoir Men We Reaped (2013) told the stories of five young men close to her, including her own brother, all of whom died in violent circumstances. The fragility of Jojo’s existence is tangible, not least because he’s a conduit between the living and the dead, haunted by Ritchie’s ghost (the third narrator). Similarly, his mother Leonie is haunted by Given, who appears beside her every time she gets high.
Ward’s novel is a ghost story and a family saga, wrapped up in a road trip narrative. Jojo and his younger sister, three-year-old Kayla, live with Leonie and her parents Pop and Mam. Jojo and Kayla’s father Michael is white – it was his cousin who shot Given, and Michael’s father, Big Joseph, has no qualms about pulling his own shotgun on his black daughter-in-law and her babies if she dares to venture onto his property. As such, Michael used to live with Leonie and the kids at her parents’ place – before he was sent to Parchman, that is. He’s been locked up for drug-related charges for three years, but is finally about to be released, and in a moment of rare family unity, Leonie gets it into her head that she and the kids will travel up to meet him and bring him home together.
Jojo doesn’t want to go. Relations between him and Leonie are strained at the best of times. Her addiction all too often getting the better of her, she regularly abandons him and Kayla with Pop and Mam while she disappears on a bender. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t get much say in the matter. The actual topographical journey they make, driving north, up into the ‘black-soiled heart’ of the Mississippi Delta, occurs in parallel with a journey back through history as Ward mines the family’s past – a dark, dark pit of injustice, pain and anger. The prison, and its history of horror and violence – ‘This ain’t no place for no man,’ says Michael. ‘Black or White. Don’t make no difference. This is a place for the dead’ – looms over the life of every character in one way or another, manacling them, shackled like chain-ganged inmates, to old wounds:
Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sediment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?
As such, it should come as no surprise that the novel has garnered comparisons to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Echoes of Faulkner nestle amongst Ward’s pages too, Bois Sauvage looking set to sit alongside his ‘apocryphal’ Yoknapatawpha County as the truest renderings of Mississippi’s past and present. The recent recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’, Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, on which Bois Sauvage is based, and lives there still today; this first-hand knowledge is evident in her work. At the same time, I found myself thinking of Chigozie Obioma’s Man Booker shortlisted The Fishermen (2015), a novel that takes everyday sibling rivalry and elevates it to the realm of Aristotelian tragedy.
So too Ward takes ordinary people – those all too often turned into an amorphous mass, spoken of in terms of problematic numbers – and imbues their lives with the battles between agency and fate usually associated with Greek tragedy. Leonie, for example, seen through Jojo’s eyes is little more than the sum of her failures, unable to comfort, let alone adequately provide for her children. But she’s crippled by wounds that won’t heal. She’s poisoned by the hatred her father-in-law feels for her and her children, a ‘bile’ she ‘swallowed’ while trying to take solace in the fact that her beloved Michael is not the same man as his father, which gnaws away at her regardless. But most of all, she feels grief for her lost brother, which is compounded by memories of her parents’ neglect in the aftermath of their son’s death: ‘Wasn’t no need to sneak out anymore, my parents wrapped up in their grief. Spider-bound: web-blind.’ As a result, she’s still something of a child herself. When an upset Kayla rejects her arms for those of Jojo instead, ‘jealousy twins with anger’ in Leonie’s heart. ‘That girl: so lucky. She has all her brothers.’
Bringing such wounded creatures to life on the page, illuminating their innermost thoughts with such eloquence and compassion, is both the making of Ward’s novel and its potential undoing. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Leonie’s self-knowledge doesn’t extend to her relationship with her children, or that Jojo’s maturity stops short of empathy for his mother. But Leonie is so wrapped up in her own suffering, and Jojo has been hardened by years of constant rejection. There was a time when ‘there was more good than bad’, he remembers, but it’s long gone now: ‘Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee.’ To see mother and son flailing like this, unable to connect, is heartbreaking. Especially as it becomes clear that they’re linked by the ability to see the dead – a gift which ‘runs in the blood, like silt in river water. Builds up in bends and turns, over sunk trees.’
Is it a gift though, or a curse? Theirs is a ‘death-crowded household’. Mam lies in bed dying of cancer, the horrors of which account for some of the most striking descriptive writing in the book. Jojo watches her, sees her tired, worn-out old body, hollowed out as from within, leaving nothing but broken ironwork behind: ‘her chest is still, the bones from the spoon of her clavicle close and hard under the skin: a rusted cooking grate over a busted barbecue pit’. Shortly afterwards, he comes to understand her agony: ‘She sears me. I couldn’t see before, but now I feel it: her chest is packed tight with wood and charcoal, drenched in lighter fluid, empty no longer – the pain the great blaze, immolating all.’ Meanwhile, outside in the yard, ghosts only Jojo can see roost in the trees like birds:
And the branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves. There are women and men and boys and girls. Some of them near to babies. They crouch, looking at me. Black and brown and the closest near baby, smoke white. None of them reveal their deaths, but I see it in their eyes, their great black eyes. They perch like birds, but look as people. They speak with their eyes: He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times she locked me in the shed and starved me to death while I listened to my babies playing with her in the yard they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me still I was sick and he said I was an abomination and Jesus say suffer little children so let her go and he put me under the water and I couldn’t breathe. Eyes blink as the sun blazes and winks below the forest line so that the ghosts catch the color, reflect the red. The sun making scarlet plumage of the clothes they wear: rags and breeches, T-shirts and tignons, fedoras and hoodies. Their eyes close and then open as one, looking down on me, and then up at the sky, as the wind circles them and moans, their mouths gaping now, the airy rush their song, the rush: Yes.
Ward’s prose drips with poetry, even at the novel’s darkest moments, but don’t let this distract you. Sing, Unburied, Sing is about the inescapability of intergenerational trauma. ‘Because we don’t walk no straight lines,’ Mam says to Jojo. ‘It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once. My mama and daddy and they mamas and daddies.’ It’s a story about a present so steeped in a violent, unjust past, it’s suffocating everyone and everything it touches. At heart, a horror story.