The difficult thing about Jesmyn Ward’s books is that they are always very beautiful, and they are also always very painful.
Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, for which she won the National Book Award, was an unflinching examination of what it was like for a poor black coastal family to live through Hurricane Katrina, with lovely, lyrical prose coming out of the mouth of a pregnant 14-year-old who is watching the family dogs die as the waters rise.
Now, in her new novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, out this week, Ward turns her attention to the lingering ghosts of the Jim Crow South. But here, the ghosts are literal.
Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in a world steeped in death
Thirteen-year-old Jojo lives with his grandparents and his toddler sister Kayla in the fictional rural Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage. His father, a white man named Michael, is in prison; his mother, Leonie, spends most of her time working or getting high or both.
Jojo spends his days with death. “I like to think I know what death is,” he tells us as the novel opens, and he’s correct. When he works on his grandfather’s farm, he’s watching goats get slaughtered in graphic detail; when he goes into the house, he’s watching his grandmother fade away by inches from cancer. And when he listens to his grandfather’s stories, he’s hearing about the horror of working in a labor camp in Mississippi’s Parchman prison farm during the Jim Crow years — and about his grandfather’s friend, Richie, who entered Parchman at age 10 and died when he tried to escape.
Parchman, Ward makes clear, was glorified legal slavery. It was filled primarily with black men arrested on trumped-up charges, forced to labor in the cotton fields without pay, and whipped when they disobeyed. Working at Parchman is a kind of death, she writes, and it’s designed to be. It killed Richie; it almost killed Jojo’s grandfather.
Parchman is also where Jojo’s father Michael has been incarcerated for the past few years, and now he’s getting released. Leonie, who loves Michael with a frantic, toxic intensity that leaves her no room with which to notice her children, decides to take Jojo and Kayla on a road trip to Parchman to meet the released Michael. And there, Jojo meets the ghost of Richie, whose body was unburied and whose spirit sings, eerily and unceasingly.
Leonie, meanwhile, has ghosts of her own. Every time she gets high, she sees the spirit of her younger brother Given, who was shot in cold blood by Michael’s white cousin. Given’s death functions as a cold and uncomfortable echo of Richie’s: Both were young black men destroyed by jealous white men.
“You fucking idiot,” says the father of Given’s killer when he learns of what’s happened. “This ain’t the old days.”
But the old days aren’t entirely gone, either. They continue to haunt the present. That’s how someone like Given ends up dead.
In Ward’s books, lyricism creates empathy
As Jojo and Leonie struggle to exorcise their ghosts, Ward’s prose remains lush and lyrical. In Jojo’s mind, Richie is first “cool dark bayou water, the color of mud,” and then “a swimmer surfacing for air, glistening in the light,” and then finally “just a skinny boy, too narrow in the bones, the fat that should be on him starved off.” When Leonie is faced with the ghost of Given, her stomach turns “like an animal in its burrow, again and again, seeking comfort and warmth before sleep.”
Some reviews have suggested that it’s poor craftsmanship on Ward’s part to give Leonie, who is such a cold mother with such a blinkered worldview, an inner monologue as poetic as warm and loving Jojo’s. But part of Ward’s project as a writer — as she’s described it in interviews and in essays — is to achieve a radical empathy and love for her subjects, regardless of their apparent moral failings. And in Ward’s books, empathy is a function of beautiful prose: the one leads inevitably to the other.
So while Leonie may be a terrible mother, Ward can still find beauty in her thoughts. And that beauty turns her into a character who is worthy of the reader’s empathy —even when it’s very painful to empathize with her.