Review – Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

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Where the Line Bleeds 
by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 256 Pages

Publication date: January 16, 2018 (Originally released in 2008)

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

Set in a rural town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Where the Line Bleeds tells the story of fraternal twins Joshua and Christophe, who are graduating high school as the novel begins. The two boys both anticipate and dread their lives as adults. Joshua finds a job working as a dock laborer on the Gulf of Mexico, but Christophe has less luck: Unable to find a job, and desperate to alleviate his family’s poverty, he starts to sell drugs. Joshua does not approve, but his clumsy concern fractures the twins’ relationship. When their long-missing addict father reappears, he provokes a shocking confrontation between himself and the brothers—one that will ultimately damn or save them.

Where the Line Bleeds is unforgettable for the intense clarity of how the main relationships are rendered: the love but growing tension between the twins; their devotion to the slowly failing grandmother to raised them, and the sense of obligation they feel toward her; and most of all, the alternating pain, bewilderment, anger, and yearning they feel for the parents who abandoned them—their mother for a new life in the big city of Atlanta, and their father for drugs, prison, and even harsher debasements.

Jesmyn Ward herself grew up in a small Mississippi town near New Orleans, and this book makes palpable her deep knowledge and love of this world: black, Creole, poor, drug-riddled, yet shored by strong family ties and a sense of community that balances hope and fatalism, grief and triumph. Hers is an important new voice in American fiction, distinguished by its simple, patient, and utterly focused attentiveness to the physical details of her characters and their lives.

rating

three

This was my second book by Jesmyn Ward. I picked it up after really enjoying Sing, Unburied, Sing when I read it with my book club. I had fallen in love with Ward’s style when I read that book. Where the Line Bleeds fell a little bit flat in comparison.

Set in the rural south, Where the Line Bleeds has a similar feel to Sing, Unburied, Sing. The story follows twin brothers living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Christophe and Joshua are struggling to find their footing after high school graduation. While Joshua finds work relatively quickly, Christophe does not, and starts selling drugs to bring in money for the family.

While I found Sing, Unburied, Sing to be quite lyrical and beautiful, Where the Line Bleeds often just felt excessively descriptive. There are lots of long, drawn-out descriptions of actions that could have been much more succinct, and the level of detail included does nothing significant for the story. I think Ward was struggling to develop the evocative, poetic language that comes in her later novel. The end result here is that the pace feels overly slow.

The strength in this novel is in its exploration of familial relationships. The boys, like most twins, have been extremely close to one another for their entire lives. This makes the conflict brought on by Christophe’s decision to sell drugs all the more painful for both of them. As the boys start to pull away from each other, they are each experiencing a sense of isolation unlike anything they’ve encountered before. The boys were raised by their grandmother; they have had a strained relationship with their mother and no relationship to speak of with their father. These varying parental relationships all come into play throughout Where the Line Bleeds. 

The plot, unfortunately, feels rather thin. I spent a good deal of the book waiting for something climactic to happen, and while there is a definite climax, it feels like there is disproportionate buildup before we get to it. This is primarily a story about relationships and coming of age; there are no twists and turns to keep you hooked into the story.

Where the Line Bleeds isn’t a bad book. There was plenty to like about it despite the slow pace. Overall, however, it really called to attention just how far Ward has come as an author between this book and Sing, Unburied, Sing. If you haven’t read any of Ward’s work, I wouldn’t start here.

Purchase links

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Where the Line Bleeds? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Review – Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 285

Release date: September 5, 2017

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

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.

rating

four

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.” 

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

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!

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