Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, begins with a young boy, Jojo, making a bold claim: “I like to think I know what death is.” It’s his 13th birthday and he’s helping his grandfather, Pop, slaughter the goat that they’ll barbecue for dinner. Jojo tries to coach himself not to flinch when Pop slits the goat’s throat or to slip on the bloodied ground as they peel the skin back from muscle. He’s desperate to emulate his grandfather, and this is his attempt to prove that he’s “old enough to look at death like a man should.”
It’s an emblematic scene. Jojo’s understanding of manhood is complicated by both the people and places in his family’s history. Sing is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional and struggling Mississippi coastal town, where Jojo lives with his maternal grandparents. His mother, Leonie, is a black woman who struggles with drug use, especially ever since Jojo’s father Michael, who is white, was sent to the notoriously brutal Parchman penitentiary. Michael’s absence and Leonie’s general inattention to her children has left Jojo largely responsible for his 3-year-old sister, Kayla, of whom he is fiercely protective.
Sing, Unburied Sing is Ward’s third novel and her most ambitious yet. Her lyrical prose takes on, alternately, the tones of a road novel and a ghost story. Ward anchors the book in Leonie’s onerous trip with her two children and drug-addled best friend to pick up Michael, who is serving the final days of his sentence—and loops in two restless ghosts searching for deliverance from those still mourning their deaths. Told mostly from the point of view of Jojo and Leonie, who narrate by turn, the novel explores both the deep effects of racism and injustice on this fractured family, and the ways its members punish themselves for how they’ve chosen to cope.