New Sentences: New Sentences: From ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing,’ by Jesmyn Ward

A good opening sentence introduces an imbalance: something that tips us forward into whatever comes next.

“Selden paused in surprise,” begins “House of Mirth,” and the reader pauses, too, wondering what has surprised him. (It is Lily Bart, of course, standing in Grand Central Terminal, and the memory of this encounter will leave us sobbing a few hundred pages later.)

“We didn’t always live on Mango Street,” says the narrator of “The House on Mango Street,” and we are forced to wonder where they might have lived before. “Native Son” begins with an alarm clock (“Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!”), and “Hamlet” begins with suspicion (“Who’s there?”), and “Anna Karenina,” famously, begins with a debatable grand statement about the human condition: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Even a sentence as apparently simple as “Call me Ishmael” tips, when you apply a little pressure, into something strange. Is Ishmael not actually your name? Also, you called me.

‘I like to think I know what death is.’

From Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (Scribner, 2017, Page 1). Ward’s previous novel, “Salvage the Bones,” won the National Book Award for fiction in 2011.

Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” strides confidently into this tradition. “I like to think I know what death is,” says the narrator, a 13-year-old boy on his way to help his grandfather slaughter a goat, an activity so gruesome it will make him vomit. The sentence tips us, right away, into the boy’s charismatic mind: a place of worry and partial knowledge that nevertheless strives for certainty, stability. His opening statement is, in essence, the origin of every religion. Despite our deep familiarity with death, no one actually knows what it is. We are all, in a way, 13 years old – desperate to project authority and yet too self-aware to fully believe in ourselves. And so, imbalanced, we begin.

Continue reading the main story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *