Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Book: Sing, Unburied, SIng by Jesmyn Ward

Published September 2017 by Scribner|304 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the e-book from the library

Series: None

Genre: Adult Literary Fiction

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

I liked Sing, Unburied, Sing!  If you like Toni Morrison, this is the book for you, because Sing, Unburied, Sing is very much a story Toni Morrison would write.

I did find parts of the book confusing- notably with Richie and with Given.  It didn’t make a lot of sense, and while it didn’t feel completely out of place, it did take me out of what was going on.  It was jarring to go into their stories, and it’s integration into the book could have been better.  It is interesting, though, and Jojo’s family clearly has their demons (and ghosts), but the way it’s done in this book didn’t work for me.

I did struggle to get through this book, and I felt like I had to really work at getting through this book.  Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for Sing, Unburied, Sing, since I had a hard time paying attention to what was going on.  But I do think part of it is the book.  You’re jumping around between past and present and different narrators, and it was hard for me to connect with any one person or thing that was going on.  It made things seem more convoluted than they really were.

It did take away from Jojo’s story and even Leonie’s story.  I can’t imagine having one parent in prison, and one who’s addicted to drugs and not around a lot.  He did have his grandparents, who did everything they could to make sure that he and his sister were okay, and in a loving home.  I can relate to growing up and being raised by your grandparents, but I really wanted more with them and Jojo.

The book certainly sounded beautiful, and while I wasn’t too interested in the story, there is something about the way that she writes.  Basically, the way I feel about Sing, Unburied, Sing is the same way I feel about every Toni Morrison book I’ve read- not super interested in the story, but way more fascinated and in love with the writing.  Morrison is much more…minimal…when it comes to writing, as opposed to Jesmyn Ward, but maybe I’ll give this book another read one day.  And I might give her other books a try as well, but I’m not too sure about that.

3 stars.  I liked but I didn’t love it.  The magical realism/supernatural elements took me out of the story, but the writing is beautiful, which is why Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t getting a lower rating.  I can see why people love it, but it’s just not for me.

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