The Jakarta Post
'Sing, Unburied, Sing' is a novel by Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward. (JP/Jessicha Valentina)
Stories on dysfunctional families are abound. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward tells of the same issue but highlights more than just a family conflict.
Set in the fictional town of Bois, Sauvage, Mississippi, the book opens with teenage boy Jojo questioning what death is as he’s about to help his grandfather Pop slaughter a goat.
Living with his maternal grandparents, Pop and Grandma Mam, Jojo comes from a dysfunctional family. His African American mother Leonie is a drug addict, while his white father Michael is serving time in Mississippi State Penitentiary, popularly known as Parchman Farm. The task of taking care of his little sister Kayla falls on Jojo.
In the book, Jojo has just turned 13 when Leonie receives the good news that Michael will be released from prison. Despite their distant relationship, Leonie plans to take Jojo and Kayla on a road trip to pick up Michael from prison.
Driving her hatchback, Leonie brings Jojo, Kayla and her drug-addicted friend Misty to the north. The journey is hardly a walk in the park as Leonie knows nothing about taking care of children. Conflicts between her and Jojo arise.
The story gets more complicated as Ward brings out ghost characters, Given and Richie. The former is Leonie’s brother who was killed by Michael’s cousin in a “hunting incident”. Richie is the ghost of a boy who was caught for stealing salted meat.
Using multiple points of views, Sing, Unburied, Sing allows readers to learn about each character well. From Jojo’s point of view, one will easily think Leonie is an ignorant and selfish mother. Meanwhile, Leonie’s perspective shares her feelings of hopeless and desperation for having poor relationships with her children.
The dark theme is accompanied with Ward’s lyrical prose, imbuing profound feelings even in the darkest moments, such as Jojo’s hunger, Kayla’s sickness and Richie’s unresolved business.
Among all the themes discussed in the book, Ward puts a spotlight on how a racist past still haunts us.
Sing, Unburied, Sing smartly tackles the theme, allowing readers to question how the issues can be solved, all along reminding us that we cannot entirely escape from it. As written in the book, “The ghost shudder, but they do not leave”. (wng)