Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Jesmyn Ward's New Novel Is Both Haunted and Haunting

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Jesmyn Ward's New Novel Is Both Haunted and Haunting

Article excerpt

It's Jojo's 13th birthday, and his grandfather tells him to kill a goat. He braces himself not to flinch or frown, trying to look "like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I've earned these thirteen years."

He's eager to prove his capability. "I like to think I know what death is," Jojo says. From Jojo, this isn't precocity or adolescent melodrama. Sensitive and sharply observant, Jojo has honed his maturity in the void of his drug-addicted mother, incarcerated father and racist paternal grandparents. He collects his grandfather's stories, cares for his grandmother, whittled away by cancer, and looks after his toddler sister, Kayla.

This is Bois Sauvage, Miss., the brutal landscape of Jesmyn Ward's third novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing." In this haunted landscape, the nuns visit schools with "acoustic guitars slung over their backs like hunting rifles," and the spring chill "stays like water in a bad-draining tub." A road trip, as Jojo, his mother and sister drive up to the Mississippi State Penitentiary to bring his father home, becomes an odyssey where ghosts, the violent threat of racism, drug addiction, and the aches of grief and love trouble every mile.

The novel is a duet between Jojo and his mother, Leonie, told in alternating chapters. For Jojo, Leonie is a villainous figure, but through Leonie we see her love for her children, which is often undone by poverty and addiction, and her fraught love for their father, Michael, a white man who is related to her own brother's killer.

When Leonie gets high, she's visited by the ghost of her brother, Given. She beseeches Given for help in knowing how to comfort the children who've hardened against her, how to care for her dying mother. After a terrifying encounter with a policeman and a near-overdose, Leonie dreams she is trying to save her children from drowning:

"I thrust them up toward the surface, to the fractured sky so they can live, but they keep slipping from my hands. …

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