Before we dive in, here is a little information on this book.
Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.
I enjoyed the book and also I didn’t quite get it.The book is short and yet feels almost never ending. Ward creates a world that seems so close to reality and yet also seems so unreal, so magical it couldn’t be the real world.
When boiled down this book is a black family drama set in the deep south. The family is haunted by their grief and their ghosts (both literal and figurative). That is about as simple as it gets. From there Ward adds layer upon layer. There is of course the plot. There are the characters. And then, she adds the recurring themes. The jealousy and neglect of close family bonds, the rage of racism, the scars of death come too soon, the denials of drug addiction. Between these layers is where the book is found. Ward’s ability to add complexity and subtlety to the tropes we come to expect is what lifts this book up.
The book misses for me in some of these layers. I don’t fully buy into the relationship of Jojo and his sister Kayla. It bothers me. It feels too saccharin. Too easy. Another miss for me is in the supernatural elements. I wish Ward took more time to craft the rules of the world we’re in. More structure. Something to anchor the mystical.
Where Ward shines is in her ability to display the pain that is passed down through the generations. The inherent grief of living Black in America. The experiences of Jim Crow as they evolve and morph over time. This is handled delicately and gracefully. The racism is breathed into the book and allowed to float in the air. It is masterful.
There is much to unpack in this book. I recommend you read it, if only for the experience of something so unique. Something magical and heartbreaking.
- Hardcover: 285 pages
- Publisher: Scribner (September 5, 2017)
- Rating: 3/5 stars
- Buy Sing, Unburied, Sing on Amazon
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