A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s The Odyssey ... Race and racism are constant threads in Ward’s novels, but not in predictable ways. Unlike cities where different groups uneasily co-exist without interacting, the rural poor, regardless of race, are entangled in each other’s lives. They’re friends; they fight; and they have relationships and children. They are bound by having to make do with less and find commonality and company with each other. Until they don’t ... these lives are pockmarked by bad luck and bad choices, yet Ward presents them without judgment. Neither does she sift for some phony nobility, as though the recompense for being poor is to be imbued with amazing grace. Perhaps these are not characters to be loved, but they earn respect. Either by strength or stubbornness, they persist though the tumult of blood ties, the scourge of prejudice, and the long grind of disappointment, always searching for a safe way back home.
As long as America has novelists such as Jesmyn Ward, it will not lose its soul ... Sing, Unburied, Sing is nothing short of magnificent. Combining stark circumstances with magical realism, it illuminates America’s love-hate tug between the races in a way that we seem incapable of doing anywhere else but in occasional blessed works of art. But first, it tells a great story ... The book’s title could be read two ways — as an ode to the haunting music of the undead, whose histories shape our own, or as an exhortation to those still living to stand tall and proud against every form of bondage ... This novel is her best yet. Her voice is calm, wise, powerful. Politics and outrage are wholly absent from Sing, and yet it beautifully illuminates the issues that wrack our nation through the story of one American family that we finally recognize as — us.
Ward employs several strangely tethered narrators and allows herself to reach back in time while keeping this family chained to the rusty stake of American racism ... These are people 'pulling all the weight of history,' and Ward represents those necrotic claims with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title. Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Sanders’s recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a more direct antecedent ... If Sing, Unburied, Sing lacks the singular hypnotic power of Salvage the Bones, that’s only because its ambition is broader, its style more complex and, one might say, more mature. The simile-drenched lines that sometimes overwhelmed Ward’s previous novel have been brought under the control here of more plausible voices. And the plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, 'The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.' Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.
There are many moments of tenderness between the siblings, and Ward takes her time with them, letting the writing become almost an act of choreography. This is where she seems to be teaching us to recognize that black bodies can do something other than suffer and inflict pain. They can minister to each other ... In Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi, one must grow inured to the rituals of killing and butchering animals for sustenance. Exhausted women beat their children in public. Men of good character do unspeakable things out of necessity, and the bad men do far worse. And there, just as in the real world, caring about people like Jojo and Leonie is not a matter of looking past these grim possibilities, but rather consenting to step into them and be affected. Such feats of empathy are difficult, all too often impossible to muster in real life. But they feel genuinely inevitable when offered by a writer of such lyric imagination as Ward. Sing, Unburied, Sing is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.
However eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America ... It is Ward’s most unsparing book. Leaving aside the instances of explicit violence, the scenes featuring the hunger and confusion of small children are almost physically unbearable. This isn’t to say that there aren’t missteps. Any writer trafficking in such lofty Faulknerian themes risks melodrama, and Ward can get positively melismatic when she strains for poetic effect. But we can forgive a few of these excesses. With the supernatural cast to the story, everything feels heightened.
It’s difficult to reconcile the meanness of [Leonie's] behavior with the writerly sophistication of her interior monologue (peeking at Jojo she notices 'the moue of his lips, the low eyebrows'), and readers aren’t alone in being nonplused. Leonie is accompanied by the ghost of her brother Given, who was murdered by a cousin of Michael’s and who seems to sit in silent judgment of her marriage and the drug habit she nurtures to achieve forgetfulness ... Haunted by these spirits, the living also seem lost and unmoored, 'crying loose' in an age of perpetuated iniquity. Though provocative on their own, these vagrant personal dramas don’t hook together into a coherent pattern. Yet one relationship feels powerfully developed. Jojo has looked after Kayla since her birth and their connection is bone deep, beyond language. He alone knows where he’s needed and where he belongs.
...just as these pastel-hued structures ['Katrina cottages']—eventually found to contain harmful levels of formaldehyde—serve as semipermanent monuments to the storm, Sing, Unburied, Sing has the haunted quality of an afterlife; its characters seem stranded in an epilogue ... While the magical element is new in Ward’s fiction, her allusiveness, anchored in her interest in the politics of race, has been pointing in this direction all along. It takes a touch of the spiritual to speak across chasms of age, class, and color ... Sing, Unburied, Sing has a fairly straightforward plot. It is a novel of the road. Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, and Misty shuttle crookedly toward the prison from which Michael will be released, and where Pop, long before, lived out a nightmare. But its echoes of Pop and Mam’s values—synthesis, veiled things uncovered for good—make it rich, sometimes unbearably so ... Because of their mutual musicality, the three narrators often sound quite alike. Still, Ward’s tone is darkly appropriate to its purposes, and its origins. Lyricism slips in and out of favor in American writing; the 'plain style' of our Puritan past—with its insistence that quick comprehensibility is a pathway to democracy, and to the divine—is always with us. But there is a counter-tradition whose banner has often been carried by black women, including Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, and, now, Ward.
Like Ward's previous novel, Salvage the Bones, her new novel is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage (wild or savage woods). This town is a rich swamp of overlapping family ties, violent history, and ever-present racism, thrumming like a sick heartbeat through the lives of everyone in it ... Ward exposes the chilling artifice of so many official explanations for why black men are killed and incarcerated at such high rates... Ward's lyricism tips occasionally into floweriness. Lush phrases smother each other, certain metaphors begin to drag after enough uses, and the novel lacks the variation in voice that helps As I Lay Dying stay interesting ... In this lush and lonely novel, Ward lets the dead sing. It's a kind of burial.
Sing establishes Ward as one of the most poetic writers in the conversation about America’s unfinished business in the black South. Set post–Hurricane Katrina, the novel resonates at a time when the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and the protests and violence in Charlottesville see many Americans returning to missed lessons about racial identity and the Old South ... Over and over in this novel, individual burdens tangle with long-held familial ones. By oscillating between past and present, Ward paints a picture of intergenerational trauma that feels almost inescapable. She returns often to the theme that everything 'happens at once,' and it’s difficult to distinguish where sorrow ends and desperation begins. Instead of allowing those memories to suffocate her characters, the novel interrogates what being tethered to a collective black experience means ... She uses a haunting, magical-realist style to masterfully warp two of life’s most inflexible realities: time and death. Her book seems to ask whether a family or a nation can atone for inequities that remain well and alive.
The ghost story fits into a realistic framework, because Ward places limits around ghostly intervention. These limits allow the reader to question the position of ghosts in relation to the characters. Are they truly present? Or are they in the characters’ minds? Does it even matter when the deeper, larger grief is prevalent in both the living and the dead? ... In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Parchman Farm represents collective grief and trauma, as a space where slavery is still alive and well. Like Faulkner resetting time in The Sound and the Fury, Ward blurs time, inserting memories into the present ... By invoking Morrison and Faulkner for new readers, Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present. Often the book relies too much on old symbols. Pop’s memories of Richie and the actions causing the young boy’s death draw almost too heavily upon the inspiration of Beloved.
...a novel of sweeping ambition in the tradition of Toni Morrison’s landmark neo-slave narrative, Beloved: an ornate ghost story about cultural memory, a parable for how history permeates the life of a community. Sing marks Ward as the sharpest voice in the contemporary conversation around the past’s relationship to the present and asks how black people can even begin to envision a future when the weight of history anchors them in ways they can scarcely begin to perceive ... Richie’s ghostly presence metaphorizes the prison’s centrality in Ward’s vision of black history. Where Morrison presented slavery and the nightmarish Sweet Home plantation as the primal scene of black trauma, Ward gives us the criminal justice system and Parchman Farm; it is the novel’s linchpin, the source from which so many of its characters’ traumas stem ... Sing is an expansive endeavor. Ward uses the novel as a form to weave together initially disparate stories into a tale of how the past can traumatize black people so fully that their lives hardly seem their own. The brilliance of Sing is that, in allowing these stories to cohere, it demonstrates that sorrows are never truly solitary. Rather, they spring from a common pain that we might be able to salve—if not transcend—by telling stories that official histories have long occluded. However, Ward’s attempt to envision the shape of black history in the age of the criminal justice system occasionally comes at the expense of the narrative...The novel’s sprawling plot leaves the reader wishing that Ward had focused her attention more pointedly on one story that could anchor the novel.
Ward alternates perspectives to tell the story of a family in rural Mississippi struggling mightily to hold themselves together as they are assailed by ghosts reflecting all the ways humans create cruelty and suffering. In her first novel since the National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones (2011), Ward renders richly drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a distinctive style that is at once down-to-earth and magical.
Despite its epic nature, the journey across Mississippi to the tune of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying isn’t what’s revelatory here. Instead, it’s Ward’s wise choice to tell the story from multiple perspectives — Jojo’s, Leonie’s and that of Richie, the ghost of a dead boy who was once incarcerated at Parchman with a young Pop. Through each voice, we get a sense not only of the travails this multigenerational, mixed-race family has endured, but more so of the racist legacy of the Deep South that has been carried through into the present ... But it’s Ward’s clear sense of time, place, and the rich mysteries stuffed in-between that brings this soulful, truth-telling novel together. Like Salvage the Bones, her 2011 novel that won the National Book Award for Fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional town on the coast of Mississippi. Ward’s descriptions of the 'feathery dark heart' of the region’s bayous, the oppressive heat and its dense woods marred by a violent and tragic history ring out like poetry dangling from the ghost-ridden branches of its trees.
...the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward’s own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior ... Ward has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Absorbing the harsh beauty of her writing isn’t easy; reading Sing sometimes feels like staring into the sun. But she also makes it impossible to turn away.
This intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South ... Visitations from dead people, tales of snakes that turn into 'scaly birds' whose feathers allow recipients to fly—this material would have felt mannered in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ward skillfully weaves realistic and supernatural elements into a powerful narrative. The writing, though matter-of-fact in its depiction of prejudice, is poetic throughout ... Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important work from an astute observer of race relations in 21st-century America.
Jesmyn Ward immerses the reader in a mesmerizing, cathartic family story, steeped in the painful legacy of American racism ... Ward’s spellbinding prose has a fervid physicality, teeming with the sights, smells, tastes and textures of her native Gulf town of DeLisle, Mississippi, rechristened here as Bois Sauvage. Her images pulse with stunning intensity, seeming to peer into the hidden nature of things, while laying bare the hearts of her characters. More powerful still is the seemingly boundless compassion that Ward demonstrates toward even the least lovable of her creations, expressed through lines that course with pain and love. The result is a profoundly moving and redemptive novel that sounds the depths of our nation’s abiding sorrow and shame, and a fitting shelf-mate to such Southern Gothic masterworks as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying.
This is a lyrical howl of a book that knows exactly when to go quiet and when to make its cries almost unbearable. It's a story of unfinished business, for both a country still struggling to live up to its ideals and for the ghosts that walk through these pages ... The past is its own character in Sing, Unburied, Sing, ready to burst in without a moment's notice and remind everyone it never really went away. If William Faulkner mined the South for gothic, stream-of-consciousness tragedy, and Toni Morrison conjured magical realism from the corroding power of the region's race hatred, then Ward is a worthy heir to both. This is not praise to be taken lightly. Ward has the command of language and the sense of place, the empathy and the imagination, to carve out her own place among the literary giants.
...as in everything she writes, Ward’s gorgeous evocation of the burden of history reminds me of Mississippi’s most famous writer, in a novel with more than a trace of As I Lay Dying. As with Faulkner, the past in Ward’s world is never dead. It isn’t even past. 'We all here at once,' Mam says to Jojo. 'The branches are full . . . with ghosts,' Jojo tells us. 'All the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.' How might one live in a world so choked with death?
That’s the urgent question Ward asks in everything she writes; the answer, time and again, involves the healing stories that can make us whole.
In her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, Ward ambitiously fractures the extended family she portrays along race lines and moves her narrative from the tense realism of Southern rural poverty and prejudice to an African American-rooted magic realism … The narrative...sails through to an otherworldly, vividly rendered ending. Lyrical yet tough, Ward’s distilled language effectively captures the hard lives, fraught relationships, and spiritual depth of her characters.
Some reviews have suggested that it’s poor craftsmanship on Ward’s part to give Leonie, who is such a cold mother with such a blinkered worldview, an inner monologue as poetic as warm and loving Jojo’s. But part of Ward’s project as a writer — as she’s described it in interviews and in essays — is to achieve a radical empathy and love for her subjects, regardless of their apparent moral failings. And in Ward’s books, empathy is a function of beautiful prose: the one leads inevitably to the other. So while Leonie may be a terrible mother, Ward can still find beauty in her thoughts. And that beauty turns her into a character who is worthy of the reader’s empathy —even when it’s very painful to empathize with her.
The story moves like myth, in part because it is structured around journey and return, and in part because Ward’s language is stripped of most temporal markers. If the setting is modern, we barely know it. The only brand name we read is Coke, and we see no smartphones. Crystal meth is maybe the only thing, aside from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, that tags the scenario as part of the twenty-first century. Strip out a few sentences and this could be 1937 ... The ghosts are extensions of the people who see them, so granting them total autonomy as characters is tricky. It is easier to care about the ghost Richie, because he ties together Jojo and Pop, just as Given connects Mam and Leonie in what is probably their only solid bond. Investing in these ghosts as full characters is less easy ... Ward has a gift for bringing a reader to the tactile world, and then turning the encounter into full immersion. Around this pleasure, she drops small bombs of clarity. And one of the most powerful is something we know is coming without knowing that we care that much. Richie is released from his state of purgatory when he hears a story, when he learns something that everybody will want to know, whether or not they’ve been in prison and whether or not they ever get the chance to find out. Why did I die?
Ward has a keen sense for the overwhelming adversity facing many of the people living in the oft-forgotten stretches of Mississippi, and portrays a harrowing panorama of the rural South ... Throughout the story, Ward’s characters find themselves trying to untangle the fraught history of black lives on the American continent. The legacy of slavery and its reverberations is at once presently palpable and yet distant, both shaping every moment of the lives of Pop, Leonie, and Jojo, while also feeling amorphous and diffuse, a general, lingering dread that becomes hard to quantify ... Ward’s ghosts and their chorus of song are compelling, but at times feel overstretched, trying to bind up the host of calamitous problems facing Leonie, Jojo, and their family ... While Ward’s handling of complex social and cultural tremors is deftly done, the narrative itself can often feel unbalanced among its shifting voices.
Some novels will break your heart from the very first sentence. Sing, Unburied, Sing is one of those ... Ward writes with the economy of a poet. Rather than a muse, she seems to have channeled the spirit of one of the Kindly Ones, the Erinyes of Greek mythology ... It’s easy to see why Ward’s new novel has been called a Beloved for the incarcerated generation, but there are also echoes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Readers of the memoir Men We Reaped, Ward’s chronicle about the five young men she lost – including her brother – will also hear grace notes from that wrenching work. At just 304 pages long, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a road novel, a ghost story, a family epic, and damning testimony bearing witness to terrible crimes. It is also unforgettable.
Ward is a writer of lyric precision, and her evocative imagery shoots light through a dark novel ... Sing, Unburied, Sing’s story of grief, racism and poverty isn’t only Mississippi’s story but our country’s. So, too, let us hope, is its story of resilience and grace.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a marvel—a novel that not only transcends the genre but unlike most of its counterparts, can be called literature. Arresting, elevating, relevant, original. All the words apply although Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a pretty book. Jesmyn Ward does not write fetching books. She writes profound and soulful books full of people faced with enormous obstacles. Yet she does this with such lyricism and verisimilitude that a reader is often stunned to find the written word so real, so alive and so filled with passion and feeling that its pages sing ... a triumph—haunting, deep, a slice of life so raw, and timely, that it is at times daunting, of a beauty too much to bear.
...[a] bold, bright, and sharp-eyed road novel ... [Ward] has intimate knowledge of the Gulf Coast and its cultural complexities and recounts this jolting odyssey through the first-person voices of Jojo, Leonie, and occasionally Richie. They each evoke the swampy contours of the scenery but also the sweat, stickiness, and battered nerves that go along with a road trip. It’s a risky conceit, and Ward has to work to avoid making her narrators sound too much like poets. But any qualms are overpowered by the book’s intensely evocative imagery, musical rhetoric, and bountiful sympathy toward even the most exasperating of its characters. Remorse stalks the grown-ups like a search party, but grace in whatever form seems ready to salve their wounds, even the ones that don’t easily show. As with the best and most meaningful American fiction these days, old truths are recast here in new realities rife with both peril and promise.
Throughout the novel, though, are beautifully crafted moments of tenderness. When the dead, including Leonie’s murdered brother, make their appearances and their demands, no one in the family’s surprised. But their stories are deeply affecting, in no small part because of Ward’s brilliant writing and compassionate eye.