Thursday, November 12, 2020

Book 259: Sing, Unburied, Sing


"But when the sample size of fish food ran out, and I asked Leonie to buy me more, she said she would, and then forgot, again and again, until one day she said: Give him some old bread. I figured he couldn't crunch like he needed on some old bread, so I kept bugging her about it, and Bubby got skinnier and skinnier, his bubbles smaller and smaller, until I walked into the kitchen one day and he was floating on top of the water, his eyes white, a slimy scrim like fat, no voice in his bubbles. Leonie kill things."

Dates read: September 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award

It's...interesting how much more we as a culture are willing to forgive fathers, in a way that we're not willing to forgive mothers. Fathers can be physically absent, or emotionally unavailable, or not there for the hard stuff, or bad-tempered, and get a pass for it as long as they can convince us that they tried. But not mothers. Mothers are supposed to be always there with love and support and kindness, and if they're not, it's taken as mark of moral failure. Mothers literally give us life with their bodies, and once we're born, they're expecting to continue doing the hard work of nurturing and woe betide them if it doesn't work out that way.

Wicked, cruel stepmothers are a common enough trope, but literary examples of bad biological mothers are harder to find. Which makes Leonie, in Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, a relatively rare creature. In her late 20s, she is the mother of two children, adolescent Jojo and toddler Kayla, with her longtime boyfriend Michael. Leonie is also an addict, with a special fondness for the meth that's sent Michael to prison. The kids have been mostly raised by her parents in rural southern Mississippi, though their other grandparents have never even met see, Leonie is black, Michael is white, and his parents are racists who helped cover up the murder of Leonie's brother Given when they were in high school, by one of Michael's cousins. 

When she finds out Michael is due to be released early, Leonie loads her kids in the car and drives to Parchman to get him. It's the same prison where her own father, River, once served time in his youth, and his past there becomes important because Michael isn't the only passenger they pick up: they're also joined by the ghost of a teenager named Richie. Only Jojo and Kayla can see Richie, who Jojo's heard about in his grandfather's stories, and when the family arrives back home, Jojo agrees to confront his grandfather to find out how Richie died. 

There's a lot more to it, and that's actually one of the highlights of this novel: it is rich in atmosphere. Ward deftly weaves together the stark realities of poverty, drug addiction, how parents and children can fail each other, and the way the justice system works for the white power structure and against people of color. She brings certain threads to the forefront at times, then others, but never loses track of any of them. She also does beautiful work of characterization, making Jojo an incredibly sympathetic and compelling protagonist, showing Leonie's selfishness and the damage it causes but depicting her as a deeply flawed human rather than a one-note villain, conveying the decency and strength of River and his wife Philomene, doing their best in a world that has not done right by them.

But though it does some things incredibly well, it stumbled hard (at least, for me) in other ways. The most pronounced was that it sets itself in the literary tradition of Beloved...and then doesn't measure up to the incredibly high bar of Toni Morrison's masterpiece. You can't write a story about the stain of institutionalized racism that prominently features ghosts and the mysterious death of a child without knowing that you're going to be compared to Beloved, and if you're going to go there, you better bring it. It wasn't brought. Ward's choice to use Richie as the most prominent ghost in the narrative rather than Given (who Leonie sees only when high), an actual member of the family whose perspective could have been used to give more context to Leonie's youth, is inexplicable to me. I never got invested in Richie, which meant that when Ward brought her threads together for a set of final climactic scenes that are supposed to pack a huge emotional punch, it felt overwrought and unearned rather than profound and cathartic. It has merit, and it's worth reading, but if you haven't read Beloved, read that and skip this.  
One day ago, I was reading: The Great Mortality
Two days ago, I was reading: Everything Under
Three days ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy
Four days ago, I was reading: Invisible Man
Five days ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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