Early on in "Sing, Unburied, Sing," the young son of a barely-there-back-country-voodoo-meth-addicted mother, makes the damning pronouncement that his mother Leonie "kills things." And indeed, death hangs heavy in this novel and a sense of dread is immediately present as the Ward reveals a forgotten place in the backwoods of the South where everything is upside down, where everything is in decay, and where death is not a permanent state but rather is transitory. I'd liken this novel to Daniel Woodrell's revelatory "Winter's Bone" in that it unveils a segment of America that is largely forgotten, ignored, and written off.
Ostensibly, this is a fairly straight forward narrative. Single mother Leonie, her two children, and her junkie friend embark on a road trip to pick up Leonie's boyfriend when he gets out of jail. The story's depth emerges as Ward reveals that three of the characters can see certain wandering dead ghosts--ghosts that it turns out are looking for answers. Ward's literary mastery is evident, though, in the way in which this novel doesn't become a some supernatural story. She's able to do this because she's created characters with whom she so deeply empathizes that their visions don't seem fantastical but seem instead real and necessary as this family tries to come to grips with its past as they are mired down in a present quagmire.
Were one wanting to pair this novel with a piece of non-fiction, I'd recommend Isabel Wilkerson's stunning history of the black America's "Great Migration" out of the Deep South that began in the 1930s (my review of "Warmth of Other Suns" is here). For in Ward's recounting of the grandfather's ("Pop') time at Parchment prison, the reader is reminded that just 75 years ago in America, blacks were still de facto slaves in much of the south as they endured imprisonment without trial, and death came without a second thought from the white ruling class.
"Sing, Unburied, Sing" came at an important time in an America that is deeply divided--largely because people don't want, or take the time, to know each other, to know each other's history. Ward bestows humanity on a family whose tragedies most often wouldn't merit more than a passing mention on the backpages of a local newspaper. Her novel has empowered these voices, past and present, to sing out and tell their story.
- “Growing up out here in the country taught me things. Taught me that after the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants [...] since Mama got sick, I learned pain can do that too. Can eat a person until there’s nothing but bone and skin and a thin layer of blood left. How it can eat your insides and swell you in wrong ways.”
- "Leonie kills things." -Jojo
- "And then Leonie laughs, and even though it's a laugh it doesn't sound like one, there's no happiness in it, just dry air and hard red clay where grass won't grow" (Chapter 6) -Jojo
- "It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can't hit" -Leonie (Chapter 8)
- "Michael takes my face in his warm real hands and his lips meet mine and I am opening all over again losing language losing words, losing myself in that feeling that feeling of being wanted and needed and touched and cradled." -Leonie after getting high (Chapter 8)
- Maybe I wouldn't cry, Maybe my heart wouldn't feel likes it was a bird, richoted off a car midflight, stunned and reeling." -Jojo after cop handcuffs him (Chapter 9)
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