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.
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.
...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.
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.
...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.
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.
...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.
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.
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.
...[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.