Sing Unburied Sing feels sent-from-above: every sentence, every word, every narrative choice indisputable, perfect. But it also feels more choreographed, thoughtful, human. Jesmyn Ward is an architect, and reading Sing Unburied Sing is like gazing at a sky scraper while holding the blueprints. First you admire the beautiful etching on the column, then you keep reading and come to understand why she put the column there in the first place.
First it’s the world. The thick heat of Mississippi, the gentle drawl of our first narrator, Jojo, which adds character to the setting without being caricature. Then it’s the family drama: Jojo loves spending time with his Grandpa, wants to be just like him, but doesn’t have much respect for his mom. Grandma’s sick in the bed upstairs, Dad’s in prison, and baby sister Kayla needs protecting. Then it’s the political ramifications of history, racism, and poverty: a family that’s suffered terrible consequences for being black in the American south; characters who can’t help but fall into bad choices; a present haunted by centuries of horror and oppression. Finally, it’s the writing. The gorgeous sentences and clear metaphors that latch into your brain, the precise plot structure, the fully-developed themes.
The book begins with narration from Jojo, and I yearned to get back to him whenever the narration moved to another character. But it was good medicine to read parts of the story from other perspectives, especially Jojo’s mom’s. She seems like a deadbeat through Jojo’s eyes — and she is — but sitting in her head forced empathy. She resolves to do better; it just doesn’t take much for temptation or frustration to knock her off course.
Sing Unburied Sing is a page-turner, but it’s not easy. In fact with the end in sight, just a few dozen pages to go, I had to put the book down. I knew the end would rip me apart, and I couldn’t bear to read it. But it feels important to look, and Ward takes care of her readers even when jabbing them in the heart.
Without hesitation I can say that Sing Unburied Sing is the best book I’ve read this year, and the clincher came when I finished the book and went back to the start. The opening paragraph is a perfect cross-section of the novel’s themes. In university I had to do a lot of ‘close reading,’ where we’d do a deep-dive on 4-8 paragraphs from a novel. ‘The opening paragraphs usually make for a good close reading,’ my professors said, but not all novels are that thoughtful. Sing Unburied Sing definitely is.