This book won the National Book Award for fiction this year (2017) and therefore has been in the news a lot, both before and after the award was announced. It seems almost mandatory for these awards to be given only to those books that have been on the radar, doing the rounds as it were, and heralded by book critics everywhere. I follow book news closely and am therefore always aware of which books are currently “hot” — so whenever I see them in the library, I never pass up on the opportunity to borrow them. While I can’t say that I have had a good track record lately with critically acclaimed books — I didn’t care much for Exit West, and I couldn’t even get beyond a few chapters of The Underground Railroad which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Lincoln in the Bardo which won the Booker Prize — it never hurts to keep trying. This is how I came to read Sing, Unburied, Sing, and the fact that I was able to read through and finish it, was, to me, a significant aspect in favor of the book.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Mississippi and is focused on an eventful few months in the life of Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who is biracial and is being brought up by his maternal grandparents. They are from the black side of his family, or as the author refers to it, the “Black” side — black with a capital “B.” Jojo’s mother, Leonie, also lives with them, but she is a drug addict and has few nurturing instincts. Jojo’s father, Micheal, who is “White,” is in prison on a drug-related offence. Micheal’s parents refuse to even acknowledge Jojo’s existence, as they didn’t want their son to marry a black woman. Jojo has an adorable three year old sister, Kayla, for whom he is the world, given that their mother is not much of a mother and their father is largely absent. Jojo’s black grandfather, Pop, is thankfully a good man who provides the children with love and care — Jojo has the highest regard for him. Pop’s wife, Jojo’s grandmother, was also a loving and caring woman, but she is now very sick and completely bed-ridden. Pop has his own demons from his youth, notably from the time he was also in prison — the same one Michael is now at.
The trigger for the story — what sets it off — is Michael’s release from prison, and Leonie setting off on a road trip to pick him up. She insists both the kids go with her to pick up their father, and they set off in a car with one of her friends, whose boyfriend is in the same prison. The friend is as drug-addled as Leonie, and the trip is a horrible one — they make a stop to do a drug pick-up, Kayla is sick throughout the trip with Jojo comforting her as best as he can, and after they pick up Michael, they are stopped by the cops forcing Leonie to swallow the drugs they were carrying so that the cops wouldn’t find them. As wretched as this was — with the plight of the children especially gut-wrenching — what was worse was that a “ghost,” who had unresolved issues with Pop when he was at that prison, came back with them. This ghost, Richie, who was also thirteen when he died, can be seen only by Jojo, and is not able to transition to the beyond — he is “unburied,” so to say, which is where the title of the book comes from. He is finally freed from this unburied life by a song sung by Kayla.
Needless to say, it is hard to take a book as serious as this seriously when it involves a ghost. And the ghost is a prominent part of the story, even narrating some of the chapters in the book. It turns out that he is not the only ghost — Leonie, when she is drugged, can see the ghost of her brother, Given, who was killed by some of his racist white college mates when he was a young man.
Overall, I have to say that I had conflicting feelings about this book. On the one hand, it is a deeply moving and touching story, and what makes it particularly poignant is that most of it is narrated by Jojo, allowing you to see the world from the perspective of a thirteen year old boy in a very unconventional and troubled family. His devotion to his little sister is touching, and your heart goes out to these two children on their horrifying road trip, making you constantly dread about what is going to happen to them. There are also the themes of racism, mob lynching, and incarceration, and while these are hardly new — a great example being the classic To Kill a Mockingbird — they have been captured in Sing, Unburied, Sing in a manner that is extremely haunting. I can see why this book was so highly acclaimed.
But then there were the ghosts, and they just didn’t work for me.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publication Date: September 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.