Mississippi has many layers. William Faulkner knew this and crafted his intricate tales of Yoknapatawpha County with characters haunted by the past, spurred by subterranean passions, and trapped in violent, tragic relationships. Jesmyn Ward claims Faulkner as an literary influence and it shows in her rich novels of Bois Sauvage, like Yoknapatawpha, a fictional rendering of the Mississippi she knows.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of an extended family trying to come to terms with their limitations. We meet Jojo, a 13-year-old with a drug-addicted African-American mother and an imprisoned white father, who is coming of age with the burdens of trying to understand what it means to be a man while being the healing center of his family. His mother, Leonie, is haunted by the ghost of her brother and her inability to really care for her children or mother. His grandfather, is similarly burdened by a past he can’t give voice to.
Perspective shifts with each chapter. The past is never far away. Racial tensions are everywhere. The dead are as needy as the living. And yet there is a surprising grace suffusing everything.
It took me awhile to get into this book, despite the fact that its opening scene was the best I read all year – Jojo and his grandfather slaughtering a goat and introducing the theme of life and death. I was reading the book in small doses when it really demands sustained engagement. But it is affecting and the images linger.
Jesmyn Ward has had a big year. She just got a MacArthur genius grant and Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award for fiction. She also put Southern fiction back on the map in a big way. I put it at #6 on the Best Reads List.
Click on the title link above for my review of the book.