I broke my current rule for buying books (I only do so if the author is in the room with me to sign it) when I heard Jesmyn Ward speaking about this on Radio 4’s Start the Week programme. She said a lot of really impressive things in general but the clincher was her description of the work as a road trip in the tradition of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The next time I was near a book shop I picked up a copy.
The book is narrated mainly by Jojo, a 13 year old mixed race boy living in Mississippi, and his mother Leonie (black), a meth addict and part time waitress. They live with Leonie’s parents, both of whom (unlike Leonie) are steady, positive influences on Jojo. Sadly, the grandmother is dying. But the poverty they live in is grinding and so much of the description of the way they live sounds like something right out of Faulkner, to the extent that when the characters use cell phones it seems wrong.
Leonie’s finds out her boyfriend is being let out of jail early and so she, Jojo, the younger child Kayla and Leonie’s friend Misty, set off on a journey to the jail to pick him up in a not-registered and insured car, so by the backroads. Unsurprisingly, the trip does not go smoothly.
The book is also narrated by Ritchie, the ghost of a boy who was in jail with Pop (the grandfather) many years ago. (Because there is more to everyone in this story than first meets the eye).
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The prose is utterly beautiful, lyrical and captivating. One reads a lot of news reports these days about racist incidents in the USA; nothing has ever made me feel it so viscerally as this novel. There is a scene when they are pulled over by the cops, who pull a gun on Jojo and he nearly gets shot. Michael, the father, is white, and his family are so racist it’s right out of Faulkner. This is an absolute condemnation of the system that kills young black men (Leonie’s brother was killed by a white teenager in a “hunting accident”) or puts them in jail for next to nothing, and the absolute inability to lead a good life or get ahead in their circumstances.
As for the As I Lay Dying parallels, they are certainly there but if you don’t know it you wouldn’t feel like there was something big you were missing. (I’ve read it but a long time ago). There is a race against time to get back home before the grandmother dies (who is some sort of a local healer woman with voodoo undertones, and her story is fascinating in itself, as is the backstory of Pop as it is revealed). There is even an obscure and not entirely linear reference to being a snake. It’s incredibly skilfully done.
I was very disappointed to read that this didn’t win the Women’s Fiction Prize, because I cannot imagine a finer book. I also wish I hadn’t sat on this review for a month because I had a lot of thoughts at the time which I failed to write down.
I am really having a wonderfully good year for books – this is at least the third book I’ve read this year where I think “it can’t get any better than this”. We shall see.