Isn’t it funny how our minds work? Well, what I really mean is… isn’t it daft how my mind works? Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing had been one of the most talked about books last year, winning the National Book Award and being praised by waves of people, some of whom I trust the opinions very much. In fact I was sent a signed American edition before the buzz from two lovely, lovely bookish friends out there. All this talk though made me somewhat wary, this book was going to have a lot to prove just based around all the buzz, before I even started it. It was also my mother’s favourite to win the Women’s Prize, which I how I ended up getting to it much quicker than I might have otherwise because of my silly wariness.
Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the Womens Prize
I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see the black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today is my birthday.
In a book which starts with a death, ends with a death and has death almost literally floating around it you need some delight. Jojo is that delight, despite his circumstances. As we meet him on his thirteenth birthday, about to help his grandfather with some slaughtering, he is soon to learn that he will be taking the long journey with his mother Leonie, her friend, and his sister Kayla, to pick up his father Michael who is shortly to be released from jail. And so the road trip which becomes most of the novel starts. For me the road trip is not really what the essence of this novel is about. It is about family, history, love and hope. Oh and the aforementioned death, more on that later.
What is family? What is the definition of a parent? The latter being something I am rather fascinated by at the moment. Jojo, nor his sister, have the best of relationships or bonds with their parents, their mother being a distanced and difficult woman and their father having been mainly absent. His grandparents filling the parental role for Jojo, despite his grandmother being sick, and he in turn for his own sister, bonds his mother resents. These bonds being built all the tighter and her exclusion all the bigger because of these resentments, her behaviours and ways of dealing with them. How is it to be excluded from your own family, or just not feel part of it, seems to be where Leonie is coming from.
Jojo is the hope and joy of Sing, Unburied, Sing his mother Leonie is at the polar end of the spectrum of emotions. Under many an author Leonie would almost become a caricature of the evil mother. However, whilst continuously unlikeable, Ward creates a character who will make you question how you judge or understand someone (as I mentioned in my review of Home Fire) and their mindset. She is not maternal, but that is not what makes her so dislikeable, not being maternal is not a crime, it can be misunderstood though, or people can have preconceived ideas around it. What makes her so dislikeable is her addictions, to a man and to a substance. Leonie is a drug addict, she got pregnant by a white boy at the age of 17, a white boy who then went to prison on more than one occasion and leaving her with more than one child and an addiction before she was twenty. When high she tries to play the role of mother, when on a comedown her own understanding of why she isn’t the ‘perfect mother’ become a complex ball of rage only heightened when she sees the love between others that she is no part of.
“I’m tired of this shit,” I say. I don’t know why I say it. Maybe because I’m tired of driving, tired of the road stretching before me endlessly, Michael always at the opposite end of it, no matter how far I go, how far I drive. Maybe because part of me wanted her to leap for me, to smear orange vomit over the front of my shirt as her little tan body sought mine, always sought mine, our hearts separated by the thin cages of our ribs, exhaling and inhaling, our blood in sync. Maybe because I want her to burrow in to me for succor instead of her brother. Maybe because Jojo doesn’t even look at me, all his attention on the body in his arms, the little person he is trying to soothe, and my attention is everywhere. Even now, my devotion: inconstant.
History is another huge part of Sing, Unburied, Sing, both family history and also some of the darkest parts of America’s history. Pop, despite his positivity and aura, is often lost in memories of a time in the past which he will half tell in stories to Jojo, a tale that comes more to the fore and we piece more and more together upon the arrival of Richie. A ghost.
The boy is River’s. I know it. I smelled him as soon as he entered the fields, as soon as the little red dented car swerved into the parking lot. The grass trilling and moaning all around, when I followed the scent to him, the dark, curly-haired boy in the backseat. Even if he didn’t carry 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 skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes and shrimp, I would still know he is River’s by the look of him. The sharp nose. The eyes as dark as swamp bottom. The way his bones run straight and true as River’s: indomitable as cypress. He is River’s child.
Yes, a ghost, and he isn’t the only one. Two relatives of this dysfunctional, or disfunctioning, family also form part of the story. And before I lose any of you who might be groaning at a ghostly twist, it really works. Richie not only is part of their families history, he is a manifestation of the family history and indeed the ugly history of the South and one whose legacy is often felt but never seen almost buried under the carpet yet who Jojo can see but can’t work out. Given however, another family member, only appears to Leonie when she is high, is he a manifestation or simply a hallucination of guilt and what she isn’t dealing with and what she might hide. It is hard to say more without giving any spoilers away.
These ghosts also become a literal symbol of death floating around the family, it’s history and also our one and only certainty in a world that often seems so uncertain. It looks at those dabbling with death through their actions, those who died innocently from the actions of others and those facing death because it comes to us all. Yet what Ward is clear to point out is that even in the hardest and darkest of times, love lives on and through that, no matter what we might face, we can always have and build on hope.
I couldn’t bear her being a ghost. Couldn’t take her sitting in the kitchen, invisible. Couldn’t take seeing Pop walk around her without touching her cheek, without bending to kiss her on the neck. Couldn’t bear to see Leonie sit on her without seeing, light up a cigarette, blow smoke rings in the warm, still air. Michael stealing her whisks and spatulas to cook in one of the sheds.
“It’s like walking through a door, Jojo.”
So, to round off, I am going to add to the buzz around Sing, Unburied, Sing as I thought it was a wonderful and moving tale. I can struggle on occasion with magical realism, I think I always try and analyse it too much rather than just let it take me away which Jojo and Richie did. It is a book that in some ways turns a road trip story on its head but really turns a family drama on its head and asks what it means to be a family and how family histories, told or hidden, can shape us in ways we least expect and that some of our darkest moments can become some of our most defining; sometimes for the bad but with hope mainly for the good.