I don’t know why I waited so long to read this one! I remember picking Salvage The Bones up from the recommended books when I worked in a bookstore back in 2012, and was captivated by it from the first page. I felt my heart sighing with relief as soon as I read the first page of Sing, Unburied, Sing as I remembered the profound effects that Jesmyn Ward’s words have on me.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is Jesmyn Ward’s second novel that is based in her fictitious Bois Savage in Louisiana, but you don’t have to read Salvage The Bones first as they are not connected (I did smile at the nod to Esch and Skeetah in this book though!). This story is all about Jojo, a 13 year old, his mother Leonie, father Michael, sister Kayla, and grandparents Mam and Pap. It is told from Jojo and Leonie’s perspectives, with another voice who appears about halfway through, the voice of the Unburied.
Jojo and Kayla are basically being brought up by their kind, loving grandparents, people who have seen and survived terrible things, but who I honestly wanted to hug me so hard because they are so warm and special and caring. Leonie is an addict who cares more about herself and Michael than her children, and Michael is finishing out a prison sentence in Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). The kids don’t really know their other grandparents, as Michael is white and his father has never forgiven him for falling for a black girl and having kids with her.
I love how talented Ward is... She creates these stories that are so dark, so difficult to read, but so powerful and important. Sing, Unburied, Sing has an element of magical realism to it that I absolutely loved: ghosts stuck in time, looking to escape their violent deaths and rest peacefully for ever more. The prose is beautiful, poetic, and drags you through the undergrowth and pulls you through the dank, humid air of the Mississippi Delta. The characters are so well developed, so real you can imagine them moving around in front of you, flinching when they are violent, crying when they are hurt. I tried my best to understand Leonie, to feel some kind of sympathy, but I couldn’t. All my heart went to Jojo and Kayla, and Mam and Pop. Especially Pop. He is a character who will stay around for a while, I can still feel his presence, flicking his lighter on and off in the darkness.
There are many, many images, some partially hidden and some very much out in the open, of the dark, evil past (including not so far away past), and even rotten present day of the Deep South. Lynchings, drug binges, police brutality, violence, racism... But there are also a lot of love that weaves its way through the darkness. This review doesn’t do the book anywhere near enough justice. It really just is one of those books you have to read. That’s all.
(I also realized that Jesmyn Ward wrote another novel before Salvage The Bones – I need to get myself a copy of that soon!).