Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

 

Sing Unburied Sing

A year and a half ago I read Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and found within it one of my favorite passages of all time:

Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness, looking with stubborn recalcitrance backward beyond the fever and into the disease with actual regret, weak from the fever yet free of the disease and not even aware that the freedom was that of impotence.

The passage is about a young man growing up in the Reconstruction South where everybody was still obsessed with their “lost cause” and the lengths they went to in an effort to retain their right to own other people. The “back-looking ghosts” are an amazing image for that desire to return over and over again to a battle that was already fought and rightfully lost, and that Quentin is literally constructed as a place to hold these ghosts in the logic of the sentence is something that has stuck with me and will continue to do so. It changed the way I think about ghost stories, the Civil War, the American South, the passage of time, and race. I guess I have been looking for a story that would strike me as much as this one part of a paragraph did.

15 years ago, I read The Shining by Stephen King and saw the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. In it, I found one of the best ways of conceptualizing empathy I had come across to that point. The book takes its title from a supernatural power that a little boy, his father, and the caretaker of a large ski resort have that allows them to see, hear, and, most importantly, feel what others (or even places) are experiencing. The most benign manifestation of this power is the fun little chat that the caretaker and the boy have with each other telepathically about the power itself. The most dangerous manifestation is the way that the hotel’s deeply disturbing past comes to life and infects the father, seducing him to either join the ghosts remaining within the ornate halls or blow the whole place up, depending on whether you’re talking about the film or the book. But there is another scene (from the film specifically) that has stuck with me all these years. The boy experiences some kind of terror and the film cuts to a point-of-view shot from the caretaker’s perspective. The shot starts close to a TV and zooms out to reveal first the caretaker’s feet then the rest of his body to show that he is slowly becoming less focused on the TV he’s staring at. The next shot starts on a closeup of his face and then zooms out to indicate that he’s feeling beyond himself. Then the last shot (after another shot of the TV) is a repeat of where the non-pov shot began that zooms in on the caretaker’s face again as he starts to experience the horror that the boy is going through. You can read it all over his face, his eyes get wide and his mouth goes agape. It’s a short scene that (re)explains a supernatural type of empathy that just might save a little boy’s life. I have been looking for a something that good at depicting what empathy can be those 15 years.

I have found both a story that strikes me like that passage from Absalom, Absalom! did as well as a vision of empathy like the one in The Shining in Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. I’m not the first to compare Ward to Faulkner, it’s a similarity she acknowledges and leans into, but she takes her modernist ball and runs with it into the modern day to make it her own. She, like King, is interested in both the positive and negative outcomes of empathy, and she also superpowers the empathy to make the implications grander and more meaningful. Ward’s novel is not a ripoff of these two works (nor of Shakespeare, though she also uses tons of nature metaphors and descriptions to link the humans to their surroundings, she does so to show that the link goes both ways), it is its own thing. But damn if I didn’t think of those two a lot while reading it.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a novel about three generations in a Mississippi family. The youngest generation is comprised of Jojo and Kayla, children of a mixed race couple who live with their black mother’s parents while their white father is in jail. Jojo, a tween, is stuck in that middle time between wanting to be more adult and wanting to stay relatively carefree as a child. He takes care of his little sister because their mother, Leonie, can’t find it in her to love them and take care of them. Their grandfather is important, too. River did time in the jail that currently houses his son-in-law but currently takes care of his wife, who is being depleted more every day by cancer. They live with plenty of farm animals and, though not in ideal circumstances, their lives are generally fine. Then they get a call from the Jojo’s father, Michael, who is getting out of prison in a few days. The younger two generations, plus Leonie’s coworker who also has a husband in the same jail, make a trip upstate to retrieve Michael. Their trip reveals more about the past and the present than they expected.

Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a horror novel exactly, but the key elements are there when a ghost appears once the family arrives at the penitentiary, one who was imprisoned alongside River decades earlier. Ritchie is the most obvious supernatural element, and Ward doesn’t shy away from depicting him as such. Ritchie, like Jojo and Leonie, gets to narrate a few chapters in the course of the novel and Ward uses these brief interludes to change things up dramatically. Gone are the realist descriptions of events and in their stead come lyrical passages about time and place. At the end of a paragraph about the time between his life at Parchman penitentiary and his appearance in the story, Ritchie tells the story of decades in a few short sentences:

Men left, men returned and left again. New men came. I burrowed and slept and woke in the milky light, my time measured by the passing of all those Black faces and the turning of the earth, until the scaly bird returned and led me to the car, to the boy the same age as me sitting in the back of the car. Jojo.

The juxtaposition of this conception of time to Jojo’s, who experiences each new thing in its newness, and Leonie’s, who tries to get away from experiencing her life in its fullest by taking drugs, is powerful. But Ward is careful not to give Ritchie a sense of omniscience, even if he sees farther than either of the other narrators. She knows that even the unburied sing their own songs for themselves, and that those songs are not universal.

What Ward’s book is really about is the act of storytelling. Jojo’s chapters are full of stories about River’s time in Parchman, but as Ritchie acknowledges later, “The story of me and Parchman, as River told it, is a moth-eaten shirt, nibbled to threads: the shape is right, but the details have been erased.” River also doesn’t want to tell the end of that story and so the book becomes about the difficulty of facing trauma. There’s trauma in the past and trauma in the present, trauma of racism and drugs and sickness and life, and each character deals with it in their own ways. What Ward does best is understand that each of those ways of dealing with trauma is comprised of telling the story of the trauma in a way that is understandable to the teller. Jojo’s perspective is different from Leonie’s, and Ward doesn’t indict either of them for that fact.

She also often turns that telling into singing. I underlined every time somebody sang something, or when their voice sounded like singing, or when the insects outside sang, or when a character wailed. The book is riddled with this singing. Ritchie might be the titular unburied, undead character who is implored to sing, but it might also refer to Jojo and Leonie and River and Kayla. Each of them is unburied in that they are alive, but they also become unburied from some thing that is covering them. Perhaps they grow to see things they hoped to avoid. Perhaps they rediscover old connections. Perhaps they just sing because they are joyful, or sorrowful, or full of life. Ward’s book is under 300 pages but is packed with amazing scenes, sentences, ideas, characters, and stories. Though it reminded me of Faulker and King, it also reminded me a lot of Toni Morrison. I’ve only read her Paradise so far, but like that book, Sing, Unburied, Sing is not exactly happy-go-lucky but it is a book that resonates with the melodies of the living and the dead.

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