'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward was number three of my reads from the Women's Fiction shortlist. It is a family tale of three generations, with quiet, and then not so quiet supernatural undertones. It is told in alternating chapters, in the first half, by Jojo and Leonie, son and mother, living together with Pop and Mam, who is dying quietly in the back room. But they live in very different worlds; Leonie exists in the current day, the journey to collect her partner Michael from prison and all that involves, and Jojo lives in a past that his Pop has shown him, while also trying desperately to care for his little sister Kayla. On their journey they acquire a hitchhiker in the form of Richie, a ghost from their Pop's past, who's story joins theirs in the second half. I was confused at first, but he really is a ghost and only Jojo can see him.
I spent the entire book wanting to wrap Jojo up and take care of him. He is a young boy desperately trying to make sense of the world, but with no-one to help him, and at the same time being forced to grow up and protect his sister from the worst of Leonie's parental neglect. Where Leonie has rejected the history of their family and wants to inhabit a world of drugs, Jojo is drawn to the past that Pop has tried to share with him, all tangled up with a collection of weird superstitions. It is a strange slow unravelling of a disturbing tale from Pop's youth, becoming more of a ghost story as it evolves, with Leonie's murdered brother Given reappearing too, all of whom seem unable to find peace in death. There is such a stark contrast between the tales of violence and the tenderness with which Jojo watches over Kayla. I found myself, quite common with this style of story telling, liking some narrators more than others, and I so actively disliked Leonie because of her attitude towards her children that it coloured my view of the book. The saving grace for me was Jojo and his determination to be a good person.
Two quotes, this one from when they arrive at the prison, it evokes the grinding, relentless poverty of the place:
"The jail is all low, concrete buildings and barbed-wire fences crisscrossing through fields. The road stretches onward, out into the distance, and for a while, the road points us toward the men housed here. There's no other sign, nothing in those fields, no cows, no pigs, no chickens. There are crops coming in, baby plants, but they looks small and stunted, as if they'll never grow. But a great flock of birds wheels through the sky, swooping and fluttering, moving graceful as a jellyfish. I watch them as Kayla mewls in my ear, as we pass another sign, old and wooden, that says Welcome to Parchman, Ms. And then: Coke is it! But by the time we get out of the car in the parking lot, the birds have turned north, fluttered over the horizon. I hear the tail end of their chatter, of all those voices calling at once, and I wish I could feel their excitement, feel the joy of the rising, the swinging into the blue, the great flight, the return home, but all I feel is a solid ball go something in my gut, heavy as the head of a hammer." (p.123)
This second is Leonie talking as she watches her children asleep, part of it is tenderness towards them, but it is pushed away by her resentment of their closeness:
"They sleep as one: Michaela wraps herself around Jojo, her head on his armpit, her arm over his chest, her leg over his stomach. Jojo pulls her in to him: his forearm curled under her head and around her neck, his other arm a bar across them both to lay flat against her back. His hand hard in protection, stiff as siding. But their faces make me feel two ways at once: their faces turn towards each other, sleep-smoothed to an infant's fatness, so soft and open that I want to leave them asleep so they can feel what they will. I think Given must have held me like that once, that once we breathed mouth to mouth and inhaled the same air. But another part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don't have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other's light." (p.151)
An intense and atmospheric book that packs a lot into 24 hours or so, and leaves the reader dazed and unsteady at the end. There is no neat and tidy resolution for the ghost, nor for the people either. Yet another book that deserves a more thoughtful review but has lingered too long in the draft folder.