Saturday, 2 December 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward    {Reviewed by STELLA}
In Jesmyn Ward’s book we meet thirteen-year-old Jojo, living with his grandparents, Mam and Pop, in Bois, Mississippi. He takes care of his toddler sister, Kayla, while his mother, Leonie, is out on another bender. Life in the South is much the same as it’s always been with black communities watching their backs and poor whites living on the edge. 'Do Not Trespass' signs mean what they say and can be followed up with a shotgun fired. Jojo’s Pop is a stable anchor in a life that could be erratic. Hardworking, tending their land and raising the animals, he’s at the centre of Jojo’s world, caring for Mam, who is in the last months of cancer, and watching over his grandchildren. Leonie is indulgent and selfish and it’s hard to warm to her, yet, as the novel progresses, you get a sense of what has made her behave irresponsibly. Addicted to drugs, unhealthily obsessed with Michael, the father of her children, whose white family won’t accept either Leonie nor the children on any terms, Leonie is a collision waiting to happen - in fact a devastating series of crashes. Jojo is a young man who you want to walk alongside and hold as a reader - both naive and mature, he has surprising insights and abilities in spite of his youth, an amazing capacity to ‘see’ yet still remaining baffled by society's workings. When Michael, who’s been in Parchment, the jail which was once run like a slave plantation, calls to say he’s being released, Leonie decides that she’s taking Jojo and Kayla to meet their daddy. The road trip is a nightmare, Kayla is sick, Jojo is worried and wary, and Leonie is edgy. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a story about slavery, racism and the terrible personal cost of disempowerment. It is also a beautiful story about the pain of the past that needs to be faced and forgiven, and the power of individuals, through love for each other, to carve out new existences. Ward weaves history into the novel through the ghost characters of Given and Richie - the former Leonie’s dead brother shot in a supposed hunting accident, and the latter a young boy at the penitentiary who Pop, in the past, had tried to shelter. In the hands of a lesser writer this might have seemed trite, but Ward is masterful. In November this book won the American National Book Award for Fiction. Comparisons have been made to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. The judges described Sing, Unburied, Sing as “a narrative so beautifully taut and heartbreakingly eloquent that it stops the breath." Stunning, powerful and tender.

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