Maybe I came to read “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward with too much expectation since it has recently won the National Book Award and many people recommended it to me, but it took me some time for me to get into this novel. The bulk of the story is made up of a car journey Leonie takes with her two children Jojo and Kayla to pick up their father Michael who is being released from prison. Leonie's colleague and friend Misty also accompanies them and takes them on a detour to pick up/transfer drugs. Gradually spirit figures appear around them as there is a hereditary condition where this family can commune with the dead. So the past is folded into the present in a way which is ultimately quite poignant. With the meandering nature of the story it felt like it took a while before I really knew the characters, but once I got into it I found the novel quite moving.
Jojo is the one who primarily cares for young Kayla as he observes of Leonie that “she ain't got the mothering instinct.” I found it really touching how the novel shows some people aren't natural parents and the way other family step in to fill the role of caregiver – particularly for someone as young as Kayla. During a scene where she becomes quite ill there's an added layer of tension because Leonie doesn't know how to properly care for her. Leonie's parents are referred to as Mam and Pop as if, even though they are the grandparents, they are still the primary parental figures guiding Jojo and Kayla.
Another thing I really liked about this novel was the way it draws in stories of the past with the ghost-like figures who follow the main characters and the tales that Pop tells Jojo. It shows the way that racism and economic inequality are still part of the present reality in Mississippi. This is very much made evident when the car is stopped by a policeman at one point and the officer cuffs and holds a gun to thirteen year old Jojo's head: “that black gun is there. It is a tingle at the back of my skull, an itching on my shoulder.” The message this drives into the boy is that his life is expendable and that he is considered a threat even when he's done nothing wrong. Ward describes how “It's like the cuffs cut all the way down to the bone. 'It's like a snake that sheds its skin. The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always the same.' Like my marrow could carry a bruise.” It's really powerful how she shows the way brutality towards black and poor people effect long-lasting psychological trauma and writes itself into a person's whole being and how this is directly linked to the region's ongoing racism.
However, although I appreciated the way that the stories from the past and brought into these characters' current reality, it didn't feel like the spirits' presence was entirely necessary. At times it felt like this element of the story was overstating the case, especially when Kayla shows signs of seeing presences beyond ordinary reality. The story gets too concerned at some points with explaining a world beyond the senses rather than letting it linger there mysteriously. I couldn't help comparing this to Cynthia Bond's novel “Ruby” which felt like it incorporated a complex supernatural element more subtly and poetically. Meaningful storytelling between characters is sometimes enough to show the impact of the past without warping reality.
Jesmyn Ward writing is exquisitely beautiful and I enjoyed reading this novel for the prose alone. Sometimes little inconsistent details would pull me out of the story. For instance, she states quite clearly at one point that there is nothing to clean Kayla up with when she gets sick because the glove compartment has already been emptied, but then later on she observes how “The glove compartment is a mess of napkins and ketchup packets and baby wipes.” Small things like this can sometimes undermine the momentum and strength of the narrative. But, overall, I really appreciated and enjoyed this novel.