It's not often that a book comes highly recommended by two such influential people - Barack Obama and Margaret Atwood. But it's easy to see why Jesmyn Ward's beautiful novel received such praise.
Set in America's deep south, this is a heartbreaking story of a broken, dysfunctional family; a family that is ravaged by drug addiction and racial prejudice, whose lives are in constant flux between struggle and hope.
The narration of the story skips between three main characters: young Jo-Jo, an endearing child who suffers at the hands of his parents' abuse and neglect; his 47-year-old mother Leonie, a drug-addicted black woman whose devotion to her white husband, Michael, eclipses any maternal feelings for her two children ; and the ghost of Richie, a young black boy who knew Jo-Jo's grandfather in prison.
The story begins with Michael doing time in prison, although news of his release occurs early in the novel. Meanwhile, Leonie's drug addiction means she is often physically absent, and always emotionally absent - so much so, that Jo-Jo and his sister Kayla call their black grandparents 'Mama and Pop', and their actual parents by their first names. Tragically, Jo-Jo's white grandparents refuse to have any contact with Leonie or their mixed-race grandchildren. Against all the odds, Jo-Jo is a loving boy - his sister's main carer and her fierce protector.
Ward writes beautifully and descriptively, with poetic language that conjures up a vivid portrait of both the physical landscape of Mississippi and the emotional landscape of Black America. The use of ghosts as central characters may not be to everyone's liking, but I found it interesting, original and appropriate for the novel.
I read this on the back of My Absolute Darling, which in hindsight was not the best choice - two heavy books about child abuse and neglect was too tough to handle at times. If you're interested in books about racial prejudice in America, add this one to your list - although The Underground Railroad would still rank higher in my opinion. (And rest assured, The Underground Railroad was also on Obama's reading list!)