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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published September 2017
What do I even say about Sing, Unburied, Sing?
How do I encompass with words the heartache, the mysticism, the strange concurrent sympathy and revulsion towards Leoni, the dread, the comfort of those Jojo can count on…
There’s no way I can do justice to the universe within this much-lauded book with a silly review. So I’ll start with a synopsis.
Leoni is addicted to crystal meth. Her husband, Michael, cooks it and went to jail. Their son, Jojo, quietly withstands the parental fluctuations between neglect and abuse, acting as guardian and caretaker of his younger sister, Mikayla.
In Leoni’s care, it’s common for the children to be hungry, their basic needs unmet. It’s not that Leoni’s trying to punish them. It just never occurs to her to properly care for and feed her children, so wrapped up is she in her own wants and needs.
Luckily, the kids have their grandparents (Leoni’s parent), Pop and Mam. Pop works hard at working hard. Mam deals in herbal remedies and speaks with the spirits. Leoni once knew how to speak with the spirits, too, but drowned it in drugs. She closed out the rest of the world, leaving room only for herself and Michael and meth.
Strong and stoic Jojo is at risk of closing out the world and the song of the spirits, as well. But his risk comes not from drugs, but rather the resentment towards his mother. Leoni can barely stand to look at Jojo because she sees the truth of herself and her shortcomings reflected back to her, through him.
The present is often bleak. Remembrances of a past life and past prejudices are bleak.
“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
**possible mild and vague spoilers ahead**
It’s easy to think that Pop and Mam are the linchpins of the family, holding it together. Maybe they are. They certainly kept the children alive and have them love and guidance where there was none from their parents.
It’s also easy to think that Jojo is the one holding everything together. He’s the one Kayla turns to for all of her needs.
But really, I think it might be Kayla holding everyone together, keeping them on their feet with their faces turned upwards. She’s the most open to the song of the spirits. She sings with them without fear or recrimination. Her innocence and affection keeps Jojo from turning inside himself. And she’s the one who makes Leoni wants to reach out her arms.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a beautiful look at the sometimes tenuous, sometimes breathtakingly strong strings between each other, our pasts, and those who have walked before us.