SING, UNBURIED, SING, by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 289 pp., $26.
In 2011, Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” set on the Gulf coast of Mississippi in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. In her new novel, which is longlisted for the National Book Award this year, the author revisits the fictional community of Bois Sauvage to tell a story about family and the burdens of history — a story with echoes of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is narrated in alternating chapters by two characters, 13-year-old Jojo and his mother, Leonie, with a third voice — the ghost of a boy killed at the state penitentiary decades earlier — sometimes interjecting. Jojo and his baby sister, Kayla, are being raised by their grandfather and ailing grandmother; Leonie, in thrall to a drug addiction and haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, is an erratic mother at best. The children’s white father, Michael, is doing time at the penitentiary, Parchman Farm, and the novel’s action is set in motion when Leonie, Jojo and Kayla, along with Leonie’s white drug friend, Misty, drive north to greet him upon his release.
Part road trip narrative and part ghost story, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has large ambitions but never loses sight of its characters, all of them imperfect but drawn by Ward with sympathy and insight. — TOM BEER
THE GOLDEN HOUSE, by Salman Rushdie. Random House, 400 pp., $28.99.
The latest from the Booker Prize-winning author of “Midnight’s Children” begins on “a cold January day in 2009 when the enigmatic septuagenarian we came to know as Nero Julius Golden arrived in Greenwich Village . . . with three male children and no visible sign of a wife.” Watching them alight is our narrator, an aspiring filmmaker named René who lives across the way. René becomes so fascinated by the Goldens that he decides to make them the focus of his first film. In the process, he will unearth the truth about where they came from and why they fled, cutting their ties, changing their names, leaving even the memory of their mother behind them.
René’s account of Nero and his sons and the venal, exquisitely beautiful Russian golddigger who becomes their stepmother, is packed with mythology, ancient history, moral philosophizing, and film and comic book references — while also taking a serious shot at understanding what happened to us between the elections of 2008 and 2016. (Do you remember what happened to Salman Rushdie after “The Satanic Verses?” It’s a good thing Donald Trump cannot issue fatwas, because he really would not like this book.)
Along with the erudition, the mythic evil and the catastrophic events, comes Rushdie’s irrepressible delight in language and storytelling. You can practically see him behind the pages, an impresario with mustaches, rubbing his hands together with glee. Like many of his other works, “The Golden House” is sad and serious, but never somber. — MARION WINIK
FIVE-CARAT SOUL, by James McBride. Riverhead. 320 pages. $27.
After marveling over the ingenious ways James McBride re-imagined the flammable persona of antebellum insurrectionist John Brown (in “The Good Lord Bird,” winner of the National Book Award in 2013) and then probed with delicacy and fortitude through the majestic-yet-mixed legacy of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (“Kill ’Em and Leave”), diligent readers could be forgiven for wondering if the industrious Mr. McBride could possibly have anything else to say so soon.
“Five-Carat Soul,” McBride’s first collection of short fiction, answers resoundingly in the affirmative. McBride, who won popular and critical acclaim with his 1996 family memoir, “The Color of Water,” opens one’s eyes even wider with yet another illuminating aspect of his prodigious talent. Could poetry be next? Don’t bet against someone on his hot streak.
For now, the stories are diverse enough in style, theme and milieu to keep one’s head thoroughly engaged; some are grounded in history, yet audacious enough to play with it, such as one featuring a mixed-race child roving the killing fields of the Civil War insisting that President Lincoln is his father. History’s ramifications enter into a tale about a white antique toy dealer who finds a train given to Robert E. Lee’s son possessed by a black family. McBride even dabbles in the phantasmagorical in a story about a Muhammad Ali-like boxing champ cheeky enough to challenge Satan at the gateway to hell. Serious fun — just like everything else in “Five-Carat Soul.” — GENE SEYMOUR