Top Shelf: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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by Consuelo Hacker

The best way for me to describe Sing, Unburied, Sing is to say that it is full of a devastating hunger. The characters struggle with physical hunger, but also hunger for a connection with each other. The main action takes places only over a couple days, and yet Ward captures the full heartbreak of a family and its troubles over generations. Like her National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones, Ward’s new novel is also set in the Mississippi landscape she knows so well. Teenager Jojo and his baby sister Kayla are mostly raised by their grandparents, as their mother Leonie is addicted to drugs and their father is in prison. When he is set to be released, mom takes the kids on a road trip to pick him up, grasping for a bond she feels she’s lost with her own parents and fears she will self-sabotage with her children.

Following in the footsteps of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Ward so keenly exposes both the dark parts of human nature on a personal level and the ugliness of racism on a broader social level. There were moments, especially from Leonie’s perspective, that were hard to read as she lays bare the selfishness that most of us as people struggle with. But within that terrifying reflection, there is a profound beauty that Ward’s words have such honesty woven by beautiful prose and compelling characters.

Ward’s 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, is about five men close to her that died much too young. It is eye opening in its portrayal of tragedy as commonplace for rural and minority communities . As hinted by the title of the book, Sing, Unburied, Sing is also full of ghosts. Generations of hardships have left the family grief-ridden. This mysticism adds another layer of emotional depth to characters already haunted.

The driving force of the novel is the familial connections between the characters – both family by blood and the families created by love and circumstance. I’m a new mom to a son, so the connection between Leonie and Jojo in particular had a strong emotional impact for me.

But whether or not your personal experience lines up with the book, Ward dives into the deep end of the grittier side of humanity and will not allow you to leave these pages without feeling a guttural reaction. She is in the top echelon of contemporary authors whose work I remember long after I’ve read it, and that I will continue to recommend for its urgency of relevance and consistent lasting power.

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