In 2015 I read Ward’s Men We Reaped and I was fascinated with the way Ward’s language in a memoir was tinged with a bit of magical realism, and also just a larger than life feeling. At the time I put Ward on my radar – this was an author I was interested in a further relationship with. Once reviews for her 2017 work Sing, Unburied, Sing started coming in I knew this would be the one.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a big, award-winning book (National Book Award for Fiction (2017), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (2018)), and I can understand why very easily. But it is also a book that left me scratching my head a bit even before we got to the ending. Part of it is certainly the literary roots that Ward is working from, because while Ward is telling the stories of the places physically and emotionally, she knows, she is also building on the great American writers before her like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. There are lines to be drawn here to Beloved but I won’t be the one to draw them, that is far outside my wheelhouse. But its perhaps that Morrison comparison that shows me why I’m in awe of the craftmanship in Ward’s lyrical work but not enamored of them, the magical is made literal in a way that no longer allows me as the reader to connect.
They share a regionalism, for Ward that regionalism provides the images that are repeated again and again as a shorthand to the reader of what is often beautiful is always barely hiding danger. From pines to skin and garments red with mud to animals waiting for slaughter the reader is haunted by an eerie quality of lurking unease. In one of my favorite insights from the New Yorker article linked above, the author compares the characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing to being stranded in an epilogue. That makes a great deal of sense to me, the meat of this novel is a road trip to prison where Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, and Misty head toward Michael’s release and the place where Pop lived out a nightmare. We are seeing with these characters the aftereffects of their lives, but there is very little in the way of forward movement. Certainly an interesting way to unpack the very real consequences of life in the American South.