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‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ review: An electrifying new novel by Jesmyn Ward

"Sing, Unburied, Sing" is the third novel by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan / Scribner

Last month’s deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, have numerous cities — including New York — wrestling with the physical and spiritual manifestations of the nation’s racist past. Jesmyn Ward’s electrifying new novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” is a timely addition to those discussions.

Like Ward’s previous novels — “Where the Line Bleeds” and “Salvage the Bones,” the 2011 National Book Award winner — “Sing” is set in her home state of Mississippi. It tells the story of Jojo, 13, and his 3-year-old sister, Kayla. Their mom, Leonie, is black and addicted to drugs. Their dad, Michael, is white and doing time in the state penitentiary. While Leonie is physically present, she’s violent and distracted. As Jojo says, “She ain’t never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life . . . Leonie kill things.”

The kids live with Leonie’s parents, Mam and Pop, in coastal Mississippi. They are poor and often hungry, but Jojo longs to be respected and stand tall like Pop, his “shoulders even as a hanger.” Mam is bedridden, dying of cancer, so Kayla relies on Jojo.

When Michael is released, Leonie takes the kids to go get him. Any hope that his return will bring about some sense of normalcy is quickly shattered as the trip worsens with every selfish step Leonie takes.

Ward is a visceral writer, her sentences often hitting the reader like a slap across the face. Her metaphors flow from the world her characters inhabit: Jojo rolls a scrap of paper “so thin it could be a straw for a mouse”; the cheapest ice cream has “a texture like cold gum.”

The past writhes at the heart of this touching but brutal novel. Pop, too, did time in the state prison when he was growing up. Michael’s parents refuse to meet Jojo and Kayla, but the conflict between the two families dates back to Leonie’s childhood. These trials haunt the present, literally, and demand an accounting.

Ward tells a sweeping tale about atonement and forgetting, shame and responsibility, and failure, sorrow, hatred and acceptance. She does not offer answers. And maybe there are none. But her vital novel shows that we must heed the singing of the past, and raise our voices to help those wounds to heal.

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