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All booksLiterary fictionSing, Unburied, Sing
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Literary fiction

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Each year thousands of members vote for our Book of the Year award—congrats to Sing, Unburied, Sing!

by Jesmyn Ward

Quick take

This lyrical journey across Mississippi traces one family’s encounters with loss, addiction, violence, and connection.

Why I love it

Elizabeth Kiefer
Refinery 29

Ghost stories come in many different incarnations. There are the campfire tales about things that go bump in the night. There are legends about ghouls bent on revenge and fright night phantoms. And then there are stories about restless spirits who return to the world not to frighten the living but to guide them toward some buried truth.

Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is that last type of ghost story. Set in the poor, rural South—a place chock full of eerie history, but not the type anyone goes on tours to see—the novel begins with Jojo: a boy not long from becoming a man, forced to grow up too soon. Jojo and his toddler-age sister Kayla live with their grandmother, who is withering away from cancer, and their grandfather, their primary caregiver who is still haunted by his years of unjust incarceration as a boy.

The kids’ mother, Leonie, is a phantom-like presence herself, fading in and out of her family’s life. She is waiting for Michael—the children’s white father—to finish a prison sentence so they can be reunited. Leonie seems less interested in parenting than getting high with her paramour and escaping from a world that won’t accept their love. But drugs also open a door in Leonie’s mind: It’s the only time she can see her dead brother, who was murdered when he was a teenager.

The plot spans only a few days, catalyzed by Michael’s release and the road trip to the prison Leonie takes to pick him up. The kids are forced to come along and to fend for one another in the face of neglect and danger. As the past and the present quite literally begin to meld as more and more ghosts reveal themselves, anxiety brews and builds to a brink that’s nearly unbearable.

Perhaps because Ward resists stereotyping, and because of the empathy that is imbued in the construction of the novel—the perspective shifts, back and forth, like a languid game of ping pong, between Jojo, Leonie, and a ghost from their ancestral past—Sing, Unburied, Sing leaves you with an understanding of the forces that have shaped life for this small family. Ward lifts the veil on their heartaches, which makes it hard to judge them for the cards they’ve been dealt. They are broken and fractured. But the pieces are held together by love and by the figures from the past who haunt them all.

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In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

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