Date Published: September 2017
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
My Rating: 5/5 stars
* I would like to thank Simon and Schuster via Netgalley for a free digital copy of this book to review.
With dazzling, earthy visual imagery and lilting prose, Jessmyn Ward has created a magical, intricate vision of family bonds and buried secrets.
At 13, young Jojo has his share of problems. His grandmother, Mam, who all but raised him along with his grandfather, Pop, is nearing the end of her days. As they struggle with her illness, he finds himself the primary caretaker of his young sister, Michaela. His mother, Leonie, is often absent, neglectful, and frequently high. She prefers the company of her boyfriend and drug cohorts to her children. Jojo’s complex journey to manhood is made all the more difficult being that he is of mixed race in the American South. As his only male role model since his father’s incarceration, his grandfather struggles with how much to reveal to him about what it truly means to be a black man in Mississippi and how to
When the time comes for his father, Michael, to be released from prison, Leonie insists on shepherding her young children on the journey with her. Jojo, who remembers only the arguing between his parents and the eventual paternal abandonment, is less than thrilled to be included on this trip. He has already ceased acknowledging Leonie as any type of parental figure and feels no more bonded with the father he barely knows. Along the way, without the love and protection of their grandparents, Jojo and Michaela must confront some terrifying realities and cling to each other more than ever for protection and support.
Leonie is simultaneously uninterested in her children and jealous of the bond they share. She, according to Mam, has never possessed any motherly instinct – and it shows. She has never recovered from the death of her older brother, Given, and now sees and talks to him during her drug-addled stupors. Jojo, unaware of the dynamics that led to Given’s death and his mother’s unusual talent, will soon learn that he has some preternatural talents of his own and the lengths people will go to protect someone they care about in the face of unbearable choices.
This book blends searing reality and powerful mysticism with the overaching themes of poverty, racism, secrecy, family love, and forgiveness. It is beautiful, and sometimes chilling, to read. The characters evoke a multitude of emotions at any given time. Thanks to the brilliant writing and multiple narrator format, pulling the reader backward and forward through time at will, the story is made richer when seen through the many sets of eyes who have insight into how the past has shaped the present. Even Leonie, though most of her actions are reprehensible to most parents, has an opportunity to give her perspective. These are not characters who will be done with you after you have turned the final page. They will keep coming back to you again and again
This is my first experience with Jessmyn Ward (winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Salvage the Bones) but it certainly won’t be my last. Her writing captivated me. It’s like a painting that looks so simple from from far away, but upon closer inspection all of its delicious complexities are wonderfully apparent. The people she has created are living, right there on the page, in front of you. There is no shortage of hardship and sadness in the story, but she has managed to create an abiding sense of hope and magic as well.