A great novel always captures the reader’s attention with the first sentence and ends with a powerful image.
DeLisle-native Jesmyn Ward’s coming-of-age novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” captured my attention with the opening lines: “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it is something I could look at straight.”
The main character, JoJo, tells the reader this as he prepares to help his grandfather, River, to butcher a goat on their rural homestead in DeLisle. JoJo turns 13 that day. He wants to “be a man” and does not want to appear weak in front of River, his idol. Before the butchering is finished, JoJo rushes outside to be ill.
In the ensuing 15 chapters JoJo becomes a man and even Richie, the hitch-hiking ghost who haunts River’s memory, tells JoJo, “Now you understand…. Now you understand life. Now you understand. Death.”
But JoJo’s enlightenment comes only after horrific events.
The first chapter introduces (directly or indirectly) all the central characters of the story. There’s River and Mam (Philomene), the grandparents who struggle to provide for their grandchildren, Jo and Kayla (barely three). Mam is schooled in the folk wisdom of herbal medicines and VooDoo/Christian religions. Mam is also bed-ridden, dying of cancer. Their daughter, Leonie, and her children live with them.
Michael, her husband and the children’s father, is in Parchman Prison; both Michael and Leoni are meth-heads. Michael, a white man, is the disowned son of a racist county sheriff, who rejects his mixed-race grandchildren. Michael phones about his impending release during JoJo’s cheerless birthday party. As the birthday song is sung, JoJo observes his home, “No one but Kayla looks young. Pop is standing too far out of the light. Mam’s eyes have closed to slits in her chalky face, and Leonie’s teeth look black at the seams. There’s no happiness here.”
And then there are ghosts. There’s Given, Leonie’s brother who was gunned down by Michael’s cousin (who went unpunished). Leonie sees Given when she is high. There’s Richie, who haunts River’s past. River tried to protect the younger Richie when they were both imprisioned at Parchment in 1948. He failed. River avoids telling Richie’s full story to JoJo.
Only JoJo and Kayla can see and telepathically communicate with the ghost of Richie who tells JoJo that he must find River to remember his own death and thus be able to “go home.”
Leonie takes her children into the Delta to retrieve Michael. Along the way, darkly comic encounters with dangerous, incompetent characters make the reader wonder if the children will survive. At the prison, Richie joins them for the return trip.
“There’s things that you think you know that you don’t,” Richie tells JoJo, meaning things like “home” and “song,” both of which are persistent themes throughout the novel. The careful reader will pay attention to the usage of song (consider the book title) and home by different characters to gain insight and meaning.
The children face a greater challenge at home. Mam’s inevitable death becomes a struggle of Good vs. Evil in which her children and grandchildren strive to save her soul. In the end Good triumphs. JoJo achieves his manhood. While evil remains in the world, he achieves a balance in his own life that let you know he and those closest to him are safe. In the final lines descrying that balance, he hears the song of ghostly voices: “Home,” they say. “Home.”
The last sentence is a startling slap across the reader’s mind, a wakeup call to the misery we create in our lives. The reader recognizes that this is a great novel, a fictional world where the characters are so real that, as Faulkner used to say, “they stand up and cast their own shadows.”
Jessy Ward’s previous novel, “Salvage the Bones,” won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is better and should be a contender in awards season, not to mention a potential best-seller.
Some reviewers identified the influences of other, great writers in Ward’s new novel: stream-of-consciousness and horror techniques found in both Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s fiction; the magic realism of Garcia Marquez; the harsh pathos of Dickens.
But Ward is her own writer. She improves those techniques to create her own world and the memorable characters within it. This book is so good that after you read it, you will want to read it again.
‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’
A novel by Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, Sept. 5, 304 Pages, Hardcover, (list price $26)
Book Signing: Ward will sign copies of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ 5:30-7 p.m. Sept. 27 at Pass Christian Books, 300 E. Scenic Dr., Pass Christian