It’s one of the most dreaded questions asked of people who work in publishing: “What’s your favorite book?” I always struggle to give an answer, mentally flipping through the hundreds of stories I love. But if someone absolutely demanded that I list my top five favorite books, Jesmyn Ward’s SING, UNBURIED, SING is one I’d name.
A finalist for the 2017 National Book Award—which Ward previously won for her novel SALVAGE THE BONES—SING, UNBURIED, SING has been one of the most highly anticipated books of the year and aptly compared to Toni Morrison’s BELOVED. Not to mention Ward recently won a 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, often called the “genius” grant. And let me tell you—this book is both genius and well worth the hype.
In this intimate and emotional family saga, 13-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, accompany their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a road trip to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where Jojo and Kayla’s father is being released from prison. Thus far Leonie has been an inconsistent presence in her children’s lives, leaving their grandparents to raise them. Pop tries to teach Jojo how to be a man while Mam battles cancer. At the penitentiary, there is another 13-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all the ugly history of the South with him. He, too, has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, legacies, violence, and love.
Despite grappling with an intense and tough subject matter, SING, UNBURIED, SING throbs with life and love. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Pop hides a gris-gris bag in Jojo’s suitcase. The leather pouch—including a rock, a feather, a tooth, and a note that reads “Keep this close”—is meant to guard against any dangers Jojo may encounter on the trip. You can feel the strength of the love that this family has for each other, regardless of how broken and flawed they may be.
SING, UNBURIED, SING deftly examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Few writers possess Ward’s artfulness, and fewer still write about topics more relevant—justice and injustice, poverty, incarceration, racial profiling, family, drug abuse, faith, the limits and the limitlessness of love. Her incredibly skillful writing makes these topics digestible.
“Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”
I think I underlined half the book, awed by her stunning sentences and evocative language.
One of the best stories I’ve had the privilege of reading, SING, UNBURIED, SING is a majestic novel and an essential contribution to American literature. Readers will find themselves moved, haunted, and deeply changed.