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Faulkner and Other Ghosts Sing Through Jesmyn Ward’s New Novel

These are Jojo’s burdens. His gifts include a devoted grandfather and an ability to communicate with animals and ghosts that runs in the blood. His mother can see the ghost of her slain brother — but only when she’s high. She gets high a lot.


Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

The story is set in motion when Michael is slated for release from prison. Leonie, that walking catastrophe, decides to collect him (and perhaps cook a little meth along the way). She hauls her children along, and they unknowingly pick up a mysterious hitchhiker: the ghost of a 12-year-old boy, a former prisoner at Parchman.

In her memoir, Ward chided herself for being too fond of her characters early in her career. “I protected them from death, from drug addiction, from needlessly harsh sentences in jail for doing stupid, juvenile things like stealing four-wheel ATVs,” she wrote. “All of the young black men in my life, in my community, had been prey to these things in real life, and yet in the lives I imagined for them, I avoided the truth. I couldn’t figure out how to love my characters less. How to look squarely at what was happening to the young black people I knew in the South, and to write honestly about that.” She needed, she said, to channel her “Old Testament God.”

I’m happy to report that He is fully in evidence in this novel. It is Ward’s most unsparing book. Leaving aside the instances of explicit violence, the scenes featuring the hunger and confusion of small children are almost physically unbearable.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t missteps. Any writer trafficking in such lofty Faulknerian themes (“love and honor and pity and pride”) risks melodrama, and Ward can get positively melismatic when she strains for poetic effect. “I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle. Absence. Isolation. I keen.”

But we can forgive a few of these excesses. With the supernatural cast to the story, everything feels heightened. The clearest influence is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — the child returning from the dead, bitter and wronged and full of questions. The echoes in the language feel like deliberate homage. Just as Beloved looks at her mother with bottomless hunger, so too does the little ghost in “Sing, Unburied, Sing” approach Jojo’s grandfather. He steps “closer and closer to Pop, and he’s a cat then, fresh-born, milk-hungry, creeping toward someone he’d die without.”

What do these ghosts want — and why is literary fiction suddenly so full of them? (See: “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders; “White Tears,” by Hari Kunzru; “Grace,” by Natashia Deón; “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.) It’s the past that won’t stay past, to paraphrase Faulkner. The ghosts — most of them, at any rate — want to rest, but they need restitution first. They need to know what happened to them, and why. It’s the unfinished business of a nation, playing out today in the calls for the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers and in the resurgence of the Klan.

What does it mean to come to terms with history, according to Ward’s bracing book? It’s to recognize the preposterousness of the question. “We don’t walk no straight lines,” Jojo’s grandmother tells him on her deathbed. “It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.”

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