Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Although there are many versions of what the afterlife looks like, Jesmyn Ward, in her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, describes a sort of island where people swim in rivers, live simply and pleasantly, and they sing. What to make of the title, then? People in this sort of heaven would be buried. So, who else needs to sing? Ward’s novel implies the folks who need to sing (not always verbally; it’s like their soul “sings”) are those who are about to die peacefully. Their singing can call to them those died violently and cannot pass to the afterlife without guidance. For these reasons, Sing, Unburied, Sing reads like a sort of horror novel.

Jojo, a boy of thirteen, lives with his Pop and Mam (grandparents) and little sister, Kayla, in the deep South. His mother, Leonie, is a young black woman incapable of earning the trust of her children because she fights so much with their father, Michael, a white man whose dad is a police officer who helped cover up the murder of Leonie’s brother. How she fell in love with the son of a hardened racist and accomplice to murder is flimsy, but it doesn’t matter. Leonie’s devoted to Michael. To support his family, Michael cooks meth in the back yard, which lands him in prison.

When the novel starts, Michael is about to be released, and Leonie insists that her son and daughter leave their grandparents’ house to go on this trip across the state to pick Michael up. Everything about the trip sets off alarm bells in Pop’s head, so he packs a balancing bag in Jojo’s things: a feather for light feet, a tooth for strength, etc. Pop and Mam both have what I would refer to as witchy tendencies, though there may be a term for their beliefs that was not obvious to me in the novel. For instance, Mam is able to listen to plants when they tell her what they cure. Jojo hears what animals think. Kayla, who is only three, sees the dead. Leonie, Mam’s daughter, seems to screw this all up. She doesn’t read the plants right, she doesn’t listen to Mam’s lessons on medicine, she seems incapable of hearing the basic needs of her children, like when they say, “Mom, we haven’t eaten in eighteen hours.”

Leonie doesn’t set off on this trip alone. She brings her white trash friend so they can do a drug deal on the way to the prison. Why did Leonie insist she bring her kids? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to leave them at home with their loving grandparents, who didn’t want the children to leave, and Jojo and Kayla didn’t want to go anyway? If you’re going to do a drug deal, I guess you need to get high, and every time Leonie gets high, she sees her dead brother, shaking his head in disappointment at her. This story is full of ghosts.

Woven throughout the novel is the tale of Pop’s time in the same prison, about forty years ago, where Michael is now. However, when Pop was there as a teen, the prison was basically a slave plantation. Yes, white people were imprisoned there, but they were given jobs equivalent to overseer. One extremely violent white man is in charge of training dogs to chase and maul escaped prisoners, who then escapes himself knowing the dogs won’t trail their master. He proceeds to murder and rape people. Pop was in prison for helping his brother get out of a bar fight. During his time, Pop witnesses people younger than he — children — enter the system, like Richie who is only twelve, but that doesn’t stop the system for incarcerating him and then whipping him when he fails to comply.

Much of the novel is about the horrifying road trip to get Michael out of prison. I was 100% convinced three-year-old Kayla was going to die at multiple points, and then there’s a scene with a racist police officer that made me think Jojo was going to die. I categorize this novel as horror because there’s loads of violence and scary parts where I’m thinking, “This is it. That person’s dead.” However, the point of the novel is more about Pop and Richie, what it means to care for someone, like how Pop looked out for Richie at the prison and how their story ends — or doesn’t. Throughout, Mam is at home dying of cancer. Remember what I said about souls “singing” before they cross into the afterlife?

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a thinker for sure. I read this book with Biscuit, and we had to puzzle it out. Without talking to her, I’m sure I would have been confused about the ending, about Richie, about the dead brother, about Mam’s dramatic death from cancer (a death we expect to happen the whole novel). Ward’s book is also the only one I can think of that uses the main plot as a vehicle to get us to the actual point. It’s not so much the road trip and picking up Michael that matters, it’s what that trip causes to happen when they return. An excellent horror novel; highly recommended.

17 comments

  1. I love horror and I liked a lot about this (IIRC – it’s a long time since I read it!) but I’m less keen on ghosts in fiction, which I think is why this one didn’t quite land for me.

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    • Laura! How in the world did I not realize you are a horror fan? I think I’ve filed you away in my brain under “lovely British lady, hence like Beatrix Potter.” Are you going to read the new Grady Hendrix book about final girls?

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  2. If people really believe in spirits then that seems to fit quite naturally into their fiction – in fact it would be odd of them to leave it out. And that is despite the fact that I have an absolutely anti-spiritual view of the world. You and Biscuit take on some quite challenging books, you must be clocking up a lot of book-club meeting time. I can think of an Australian book I reviewed earlier this year in which the kids went along with a parent on a drug deal. I don’t think drug addiction and responsibility go together very well.

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    • Biscuit and I meet twice per week, an hour each time. Right now our goal is to help me reduce the pile of books I own in my TBR. I went through them and checked her library catalog to see where we match up. From there, I try to pick books that are dissimilar so we don’t feel like we’re repeating ourselves. It is super nice to have another set of ears and eyes when it comes to some of these books. She always notices funny little things that go over my head, or is brave enough to imagine something wacky happening that weirdly fits with the book in style and plot.

      I do love old “down south” stories with ghosts. Something about swamps and the bayou that make it easy to believe in ghosts, I think. It’s a place that’s wet, dark, full of deadly creatures, and it’s easy to die there and never be seen again.

      I think you are right about drug addiction and responsibility, and I can’t believe that comment made me laugh aloud.

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  3. I had heard of this but somehow had not realised it was horror! I thought it was science fiction. I’m glad I read your review or I would have blithely picked it up without realising. (It does sound good, but it definitely doesn’t sound like it’s for me).

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    • While there are no axe-wielding masked murderers, I WAS horrified the whole book, there are murders, and there is a ghost, too. Glad my review could give you more information to make the right choice for you, Lou! Ward’s writing IS wonderful, though, so maybe check out one of her other books.

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  4. I would have never guessed this was a horror novel based on the cover and title. It always amazes me when parents take their kids on drug deals, both in books and in real life. In what universe is that going to end well?

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  5. A horror book? That’s not the tag I have put to this one when I read it but I’m not good at labeling books.

    I wasn’t too fond of it, probably because stories with ghosts are a put off. She writes well, it’s atmospheric and like you I was expecting a death or something traumatic. The trip to the prison with a drug deal pit stop was a recipe for disaster, I guess that’s why we were expecting the worst.

    JoJo and Kayla are engaging characters and I wondered what would become of them with Mam dying and Pop not getting younger.

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    • I tucked it under “horror” because the possibility for the children dying constantly was horrifying, there was a menacing ghost with a tragic story, and a gruesome murder. However, I know lots of folks would probably call this “literary” and be done with it, too.

      You know, I haven’t read a good straight-up ghost book in ages. I mean, that old haunting a house, angry spirit kind of book.

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