Six years ago, a young, relatively unknown writer from Mississippi published “Salvage the Bones.” In lush prose that felt determined to sprout off the page, the novel described a poor African American family struck by Hurricane Katrina. From its modest beginnings, “Salvage the Bones” went on to win the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction and to establish its author, Jesmyn Ward, as one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country.
Now Ward is back with a new novel called “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” Again, she tells a tragic story about an African American family challenged with dissolution, but the threats here are more complex and even more tenacious than the tempest that clawed through Louisiana and Mississippi. (Excerpts of the novel appeared earlier this year in Oxford American.) Working on a wider scale, Ward employs several strangely tethered narrators and allows herself to reach back in time while keeping this family chained to the rusty stake of American racism.
The novel is built around an arduous car trip: A black woman and her two children drive to a prison to pick up their white father. Ward cleverly uses that itinerant structure to move this family across the land while keeping them pressed together, hot and irritated. As soon as they leave the relative safety of their backwoods farm, the snares and temptations of the outside world crowd in, threatening to derail their trip or cast them into some fresh ordeal.
The first voice we hear belongs to the convict’s son, Jojo. Harsh circumstances have forced Jojo to shoulder far more responsibility than any 13-year-old should, but he’s risen to the challenge. “I like to think I know what death is,” he begins, and despite a touch of naive bravado, it’s clear that he does know. He’s also becoming aware of the bruised lives all around, a burden of perception that fascinates and terrifies him, while giving his narration an eerie quality of precocious insight.
Jojo has been raised by his black grandparents, whom he idolizes, and his erratic mother, Leonie, whom he dislikes and distrusts. Care for his 3-year-old sister has fallen largely to him, and he devotes himself to her with ferocious determination. He knows all too well how endangered he and his sister are whenever their drug-addled mother pretends she can care for them.
That tension between Leonie and her teenage son runs throughout the novel as the narration passes back and forth between them. Selfish and embittered, Leonie is rarely a sympathetic character, and Ward draws us deep into the bile of a mother who sometimes hates her children, often resents their claims on her and even relishes the chance to mistreat them. But in Leonie’s doleful confessions, we get a fuller sense of her shame and disappointment than her judgmental son can imagine at his age. Her failings, which she knows are numerous, have been aggravated by addiction and grief and a racist culture that offers her no opportunity and little justice.
Driving to the state penitentiary several hours away, Leonie wants to imagine they can be a viable family again, but her mission is poisoned from the start by negligence and her own felonious cravings. She risks her children’s safety in a series of crises that hurtles the novel forward toward calamity.
But the story’s countervailing movement links these precarious lives to the past. These are people “pulling all the weight of history,” and Ward represents those necrotic claims with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title. Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Sanders’s recent novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” but Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a more direct antecedent. In this “death-crowded household,” Leonie is haunted by her brother, who was shot by a white man in a hunting “accident.” Jojo, meanwhile, can see and hear the agonized spirit of a boy who was imprisoned with his beloved grandfather decades ago when Southern jails were essentially a system of legalized slavery. (How much has changed?) The fact that Leonie and her son share this spectral affliction without knowing it or being able to comfort each other is just one of the novel’s many painful ironies.
If “Sing, Unburied, Sing” lacks the singular hypnotic power of “Salvage the Bones,” that’s only because its ambition is broader, its style more complex and, one might say, more mature. The simile-drenched lines that sometimes overwhelmed Ward’s previous novel have been brought under the control here of more plausible voices. And the plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, “The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.”
Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
On Saturday, Jesmyn Ward will be at the National Book Festival at the Washington Convention Center.
By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner. 304 pp. $26