Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Release date: September 5, 2017
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.
This is an absolutely beautiful book. Ward’s lyrical prose, rich with metaphor and evocative imagery, meshes well with the magical realism woven into the story. Overall, this creates a dreamy atmosphere which provides a nice counter balance for the heavy, dark story lines; ghosts are full-fledged characters in this story, bringing along their baggage and trauma brought on by violent deaths.
If I have any criticism at all of this novel, it’s that Ward’s distinctive voice sometimes gets in the way of her characters. There is too much similarity in tone between different point of view characters, blending them together. The prose was so lovely that it’s hard to mind, but it does have the effect of distracting from the story at times. For example, Jojo is 13 years old, and sometimes seems to have a college-level vocabulary. The writing is stylistically lovely, but not always believable as Jojo’s internal monologue.
Leonie is a deeply flawed woman and unable to bond with her children. Kayla, the youngest child, looks to Jojo for a kind of surrogate parent, and she resents both of them for this evidence of her failure as a mother. I personally disliked Leonie deeply, but still found her point of view chapters endlessly engaging, a testament to Ward’s skill as a writer. If a book has me hanging on every word of a character that I can’t stand, that’s worth noting.
I feel the need to warn readers that this is an emotionally difficult book to read. Themes include, racial violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, and death. These themes are handled masterfully, however, and Sing, Unburied, Sing, is the kind of novel that lives in the reader’s soul for years to come.
“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
Thank you for reading! Have you read Sing, Unburied, Sing or any of Jesmyn Ward’s other work? Please share your thoughts in the comments!