This is what Pop does when we are alone, sitting up late at night in the living room or out in the yard or woods. He tells me stories. Stories about eating cattails after his daddy been out gathering them from the marsh. Stories about his his mama and her people used to collect Spanish moss to stuff their mattresses. Sometimes he'd tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he's reached out to me, like he's rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I'll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure.Sing, Unburied, Sing was a real gut-punch of a novel; I'm not sure what I expected, having read Salvage the Bones (which also won the National Book Award), and, last year, Men We Reaped --both of which are gorgeously written and heart wrenchingly sad. In this, her most recent National Book Award winning effort, Ward gives us another Southern epic which revolves around Jojo, a 13 year old being raised by his grandparents. His white father, Michael, is in prison, presumably on meth-related charges, and his black mother, Leonie, drifts in and out of his life. The novel chronicles the days after his 13th birthday as he, his mother, and his baby sister, Kayla, drive to prison to pick up his father.
There is a cacophony of narrative voices here. Jojo is at the center, but we also hear from Leonie, Pop (through a fragmented haunting story from his own young adulthood broken up and presented throughout), and Richie, a ghost from from Pop's past. It's an almost Faulknerian cast of narrative figures, and it layers nuance on artfully. Leonie, who initially seems an incredibly unsympathetic character and awful mother, manages to emerge as a complicated, broken person whose poor choices are more a result of her circumstances than her character.
While Leonie and Michael's relationship with their children is violently heartbreaking and difficult to read, there are pockets of redemption throughout. Jojo's love and devotion for his younger sister is beautiful, and Pop's gruff care for his grandson makes you think the boy may emerge from this whole disaster at some point.
This was a rough read, especially as a newly minted mother. There is endless heartbreak here, for almost every character, but Leonie's neglect and lack of care for her children was especially hard to wade through. Ward is a powerful writer, and this novel is written to her standard of excellence, but I don't know that this was the right time for me to read it.