This brilliant novel reads like a thriller yet teases out and lays bare a disturbing family history of violent, unresolved death resulting from a culture of race relations profoundly at odds with national ideals.
Jesmyn Ward is a Southern writer in the gothic tradition, a worthy successor to Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, and McCullers. She shows the cruelties not just within families but between families and races. Her characters have so much at stake. What Ward writes is what we have inherited. We can change it, but first we have to acknowledge it.
The bulk of this novel takes place over the course of one day, the day Jojo and his sister Kayla accompany his mother Leonie to Parchman’s, a prison, to pick up his father Michael. Everything is revealed in that one day. Resolution takes a little longer.
Ward’s willingness to “go there,” her vision uncut and her language clear and exact, gives her work the aspect of witness. And yet she inhabits the young man Jojo so completely that he became our eyes and our judgment. It feels like a gift, to be able to see how families bend and break under the weight of all they carry…the weight of all those killed violently and not yet laid to rest.
“Last night, Richie crawled under the house and sang.”Richie is the ghost of a poor murdered boy, and he is not the only ghost in this family’s present. Jojo’s uncle Given is also a spirit, albeit one that gives comfort, advice, and warning. It proves difficult for family members to deal with the spiritual needs of the ghosts as well as the temporal needs of those around them. It is confusing, demanding, intrusive. Add to that, not everyone has “the sight.” Jojo has it.
Ward opens her story with the butchering of a goat, giving us a taste of the education Jojo has on the farm, under the tutelage of his grandfather. The violence of the experience jolts us awake, nerve endings jangling. We need whatever instincts this incident has aroused in us to get through the day trip to Parchman’s, which becomes a descent into the dark heart of delusion and destruction.
Ward manages to instill the work with the impetus of a thriller: a reader becomes completely trapped by the closeness in the old car, the desultory conversation, the turn onto unfamiliar roads, the unexpected stop. The blood scent has put the wind up: we’re not sure who will come out alive at the end of the trip. Ward exquisitely calibrates her descriptions to resonate with us: we recognize these people, these motivations, these zones of danger.
Making an exciting work of fiction is an art, but Ward elevates the stakes by making an exciting work of fiction socially relevant and critical to the conversation going on in our nation. Just last summer a book of essays edited by Jesmyn Ward and written by important American writers and thinkers, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, was released to great acclaim. The essays address the ongoing race issues our country has never resolved and struggles with yet.
Ward is among the finest and most important writers we have. Make sure you catch everything she puts out.
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