Ghosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing — a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (a place rich in oil rigs and atmosphere, if almost nothing else), the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward’s own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior. Her first narrator, 13-year-old Jojo, is the parent to his baby sister, Kayla, that his mother Leonie — she’s the second — can’t be; she’s too in love with Jojo’s absent father, Michael, and the drugs that take her away from the grief of losing her adored older brother, Given. (That Michael, locked away for his own adventures in amphetamines, belongs to the white family responsible for Given’s death isn’t something she wants to discuss.) And then there’s Richie, a little boy who doesn’t strictly exist, or hasn’t for at least half a century.
Ward, whose Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award, has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Absorbing the harsh beauty of her writing isn’t easy; reading Sing sometimes feels like staring into the sun. But she also makes it impossible to turn away. A
“I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.”