Jesmyn Ward s Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest It is a novel that I ve been waiting a very long time to read, and I mean that both literally and figuratively There is so much within these pages so much angst, so much wonder and so much sorrow that I am still grappling with it even now And that s a wonderful thing, the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their reader.I read, before reading this novel, that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern day Faulkner, and I doubted this, I admit, likely because of all the books out there I ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other, greater works, only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons But Sing, Unburied, Sing is the real deal Its utter humanity and heart churns and brews on every page, particularly leading up to the climax, never shying away from the reality of hard living, always staring it down right in its face, urging us to look it in the face, too Don t turn away I could never turn away.This is the tale of two Mississippi families, one black and one white, joined by bloodshed and bloodlines Joined by love and hatred, by death and birth But this is also a coming of age story of one teenaged boy, Jojo, whose life is forever changed Jojo is the biracial son of the often high, often absent Leonie who sees her murdered brother, Given, in drug induced hallucinations and Michael, whose hostile, racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half breed children Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three year old sister, Kayla, and learning to be a man from his grandfather, Pop But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home, a place of comfort and togetherness, between Kayla and Pop until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is, what she is capable of and what she will never beWhen I wake, Michael s rolled all the windows down I ve been dreaming for hours it feels like, dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of Mexico Jojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow But the raft must have a hole in it, because it deflates We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe, but then Kayla sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle, but they won t stay up they want to sink like stones they keep slipping from my hands I am failing them We are all drowning If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting, Ward s novel offers that in spades Here, in the blazing sun of Mississippi, you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters brows, feel their pulse as they confront one another as they confront themselves The suffering within these pages was tangible, palpable, like a pulse in the air, a drumbeat at the turn of every page It marked the characters lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page But Ward goes beyond that beyond the quintessential tale of Southern burdens, anguish and racial hate, beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror My one note of criticism is that the voices didn t always sound realistic for the characters JoJo and Leonie s chapters often sounded like they were coming from the same voice the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some thangs and that rang false to me But, when I say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest, I mean that it binds, bridges and merges every aspect of the genre social commentary, magical realism, surrealism and grit Blood, sweat, tears, but, most of all haunting and poetic soul That, it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voices.This novel will stay with me for a long time There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like, but that all came together in the end And, quite honestly, I haven t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison s Recitatif, and for that I could only ever give a well deserved 5 stars I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.FOLLOW ME HERE The Navi Review Blog Twitter Instagram 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 An Intimate Portrait Of A Family And An Epic Tale Of Hope And Struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing Journeys Through Mississippi S Past And Present, Examining 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 He Doesn T Lack In Fathers To Study, Chief Among Them His Black Grandfather, Pop But There Are Other Men Who Complicate His Understanding His Absent White Father, Michael, Who Is Being Released From Prison His Absent White Grandfather, Big Joseph, Who Won T Acknowledge His Existence And The Memories Of His Dead Uncle, Given, Who Died As A Teenager His Mother, Leonie, Is An Inconsistent Presence In His And His Toddler Sister S Lives She Is An Imperfect Mother In Constant Conflict With Herself And Those Around Her She Is Black And Her Children S Father Is White She Wants To Be A Better Mother But Can T Put Her Children Above Her Own Needs, Especially Her Drug Use Simultaneously Tormented And Comforted By Visions Of Her Dead Brother, Which Only Come To Her When She S High, Leonie Is Embattled In Ways That Reflect The Brutal Reality Of Her Circumstances 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 Thirteen Year Old 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 oooh, goodreads choice awards semifinalist for best fiction what will happen Sometimes, the world don t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look Sometimes, it withholds.so, i ve been meaning to review this for a couple of weeks now, and it s a real challenge, because there is no universe in which i feel qualified to convey how damn good this book is up there it s compared to morrison and faulkner, the odyssey and the old testament, and that s probably true, but i m no authority i ve only read one book each from morrison and faulkner, the parts of the odyssey i liked best all involved monsters, and the old testament seems to flavor nearly every book i love all that vengeful grit lit western stuff where people do the wrong thing for the right reasons.but none of that even comes close to what i got out of this book for one thing, her writing is phenomenally seductive, but it s the kind of seductive that hypnotizes you right into a steel trap or like OH I GET IT NOW the sirens in the damn odyssey i d never read her before, but you better believe i m going to dig up my copy of Salvage the Bones because this right here is the kind of writing that i adore pure storytelling, strong descriptions, bleak situations, with a spoonful of magical realism on top there are two narrative voices here thirteen year old jojo and his mother leonie the family dynamic is very messy leonie is a drug addict who has left jojo and her three year old daughter kayla in the care of her elderly parents, mam and pop, breezing in and out of their lives in varying stages of sobriety and maternal inclination while their father michael is incarcerated on drug charges mam is slowly dying of cancer and pop is haunted by the past, but he is devoted to the children an absolute rock in the maelstrom addiction and neglect are bad enough, but ward gives the family an extra layer of conflict leonie is black, michael is white, and his racist parents disapprove of their relationship so much that they have no relationship whatsoever with their grandchildren still not bad enough nope, says ward, and gives that knife one shakespearian twist when they were teenagers, michael s cousin killed leonie s brother given a hate crime passed off as a hunting accident and now, when leonie is high, she sees given s ghost, a presence unable to communicate with her, but he makes his disapproval of her choices quite obvious that ward isn t one to take the easy road is clear just by introducing these elements, but she also refrains from passing too easy judgments, or allowing her readers to do so the natural impulse would be to sympathize with jojo and the difficulties of his life his birthday party is downright heartbreaking while making leonie the villain a mother who does cocaine while pregnant, who abandons her children, who is impatient and inept at the very basic responsibilities of being a mother however, in her POV chapters, we see what she could be if she weren t an addict her good intentions and her self loathing at all her parental failures, her helplessness in overcoming her addiction despite how much it has cost her seeing the disappointment in her son harden into resignation, seeing kayla reach out for jojo, never for her, seeing her father distance himself from her Leonie, Pop says.I wish he would call me something else When I was younger he would call me girl When we were feeding the chickens Girl, I know you can throw that corn further than that. When we were weeding the vegetable garden and I complained about my back hurting You too young to know pain, girl, with that young back. When I brought report cards home with As and Bs than Cs You a smart one, girl. He laughed when he said it, sometimes just smiled, and sometimes said it with a plain face, but it never felt like censure Now he never calls me by anything but my name, and every time he says it, it sounds like a slap.it s hard not to feel pity for her.this book is a superlative literary achievement in every way.the road trip is so vividly written muggy and claustrophobic and perfumed with a toddler s vomit it takes you right into all the unpleasantness and tedium of a long car ride and it is relentless the children are the best i ve ever read jojo is a sponge of a character a dour observer internalizing the world s lessons, passing judgment as silently as given, taking on the responsibility of caring for kayla in perfect little man fashion and kayla is so realistically written that she feels like a hologram sweet, cranky, needy, sick every scene she s in made it feel like watching than reading.but my most appreciative praise is reserved for how ward maintains emotional balance throughout, and ultimately resists either some cheesily happy ending or a shakespearian heap of bodies snowballing tragedy for tragedy s sake it sticks its landing perfectly, realistically nuanced and whatever a less overused synonym for complicated is to sum up there is no universe in which i feel qualified to convey how damn good this book is ombudsmen will say three, but the third is a ghost and only gets three chapters if reader responses built rocketships and mathematical precision really mattered, i would pipe up and confess that i did not love the last page and a half, so it would be just shy of five stars but no one s going off to colonize mars on my say so, so five stars it is full review to come i m only about halfway through, but so far this is an easy five star book stay gold, book come to my blog I listened to the audiobook of Salvage the Bones , a couple of months ago I was so engrossed, it was almost hard to distinguish one talent from the other the narrators voice or the authors writing Jesmyn Ward was a new author to me I remember I cringed at times and thought the language was beautiful NO SPOILERS..many other reviews came before me excellent ones describing the plot and sharing about the characters I read Michael s review which had me running to find this book on Netgalley I didn t even know a new release was coming out His review is wonderful I recommend reading his review its terrific I wrote this review mostly in context AS A WHOLE not many details about the characters and the story However, this novel will stay with me a long time Its wonderful I like it even than Salvage the Bones and I liked that too I enjoyed reading Jesmyn s writing very much no audiobook this time Page after page there is wonderful prose I loved how the story begins I like to think I know what death is I like to think it s something I could look at straight When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I leave Mam sleep in her bed and my little sister Kayla sleep on a blanket on the floor, and I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger that s how Pop walks Jesmyn is a magnificent writer, and storyteller Although an easy storyline to follow itself I spent extra time thinking about the individual characters Visual pictures were solid in my brain Each one of characters were dealing with transition change suffering and other losses.Each character in this novel had to confront the curves life threw at them be it illness drugs poverty racial inequity massive disappointments fears regret abuse narcissistic illusional protection and other realities every human being would prefer to avoid Morning breakfast anyone Cold goat for breakfast with gravy and rice was cooked in a pot that Pop tells Jojois leaking cancer into the food because the enamel on the inside is peeling off like paint Isn t this the way you start your day And greet your kids with news of their first morning meal Yeah thought so Kidding aside about the breakfast there s a great deal of sadness in this novelbut WE FACE OUR THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS WITH GRACE because Jasmyn Ward is skilled in opening up our hearts and mind to take a deeper look at some very serious issues without leaving us the readers to bleed to death either Jasmyn has crafted an important path to understanding about ourselves the world we live in and the nature of reality.a touch of spiritualistic mythology Thank You Scribner, Netgalley, and Jesmyn Ward you have me wanting to read your other books This is a profoundly moving novel that tears your heart apart from the hugely gifted Jesmyn Ward It is Southern Gothic at its most impressive, set in the burning heat of the Mississippi Gulf coast It speaks of neglectful parents, ill equipped to bring up their mixed race children The black Leonie is a drug addict and troubled woman, moving in and out of 13 year old JoJo and his toddler sister, Kayla s lives as they reside with their beloved grandparents, Mam and Pop, who provide safety, security and love for them They call their mother Leonie, not mum, as she is scarcely a mum Leonie resents this and the close bond between JoJo and Kayla, Kayla turns to JoJo to have her needs met Their father, Michael, is in Parchman prison, about to be released This is a story of poverty, love, grief, loss, abuse, brutality, race, injustice, family, addiction, and ghosts It tells of the ugliness of US history and how it informs the present The pain of the black experience as it moved seamlessly from the plantations in the past, to the prison today, from one nightmare to another Mam, a healer, has cancer and is dying, Pop tells his stories, like that of the doomed Richie at Parchman, to JoJo, a boy with responsibilities and a maturity way beyond his years and a boy who can see and hear what others cannot Under the influence of drugs, Leonie can see her dead brother, Given, which both frightens and comforts her Leoni packs her children into a car embarking on a road trip to meet Michael, who she loves, on his release from Parchman On a trip that brings danger and destruction, and the truth of Leoni and race to JoJo The ghost of Richie searches for home in a song.This is a novel that journeys into the soul of Mississippi, its history and people vibrating and shimmering in the air and land Nothing disappears, it is all there informing the present, with spirits and ghosts seen by those with the sight Ward writes with humanity and insight, painting an unflinching portrait of a nation and its people It is lyrical and poetic, and amidst the heart of darkness and pain, is hope and love Her complex and nuanced characters, rich descriptions and compelling narrative, spirits and ghosts, are the song of Mississippi and the US A hauntingly brilliant read which I highly recommend Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC. 3.5 starsWell, this was certainly an intense, beautifully written novel I have to admit I went into this with some very high expectations, but also with a bit of reluctance I have seen much praise lavished on this book, and deservedly so despite my lower ranking compared with many of my trusted and much respected Goodreads friends I also had prior knowledge of a fairly large dose of magical realism which can sometimes muddy my enjoyment of a book However, I took the plunge, grabbed a copy, and immersed myself in the ugly reality of poverty, racism, drug addiction and grief Every major character in this book is haunted by either physical ghosts or his or her own imaginary, but all too real, demons from a troubled past My heart bled for thirteen year old Jojo and little sister Kayla who have been all but bodily abandoned by their emotionally detached and drug addicted mother, Leonie Raised by Mam and Pop, the children are still fortunate enough to be given a fairly healthy dose of love and compassion from these devoted grandparents Jojo, who is forced to grow up so fast at such a tender age, admires his grandfather and aspires to emulate him and earn his respectI liked most of the things Pop did, liked the way he stood when he spoke, like the way he combed his hair back straight from his face and slicked it down so he looked like an Indian in the books we read in school on the Choctaw and Creek, liked the way he let me sit in his lap and drive his tractor around the back, liked the way he ate, even, fast and neat, liked the stories he told me before I went to sleepAnd stories did he tell In particular, Pop shares one story involving his time spent in the penitentiary up in Parchman But there are holes in this story that Jojo longs to have filled in Mam, grieving the wrongful death of her son years ago, is now on her own end of life journey as the cancer that once tried to claim her has now returned with a vengeanceShe s too sick with the cancer that came and left and returned, steady as the rising and sinking of the marsh water in the bayou with the moon Upon hearing that Jojo and Kayla s father, Michael, is to be freed after a three year stint of his own up at Parchman, Leonie decides to pack up her kids to greet him on his day of release Jesmyn Ward then takes the reader along with Leonie, a fellow junkie named Misty, and the children on a ride through Mississippi to the gates of the state penitentiary Not only do we witness a physical drive through the state, but the remainder of the book reflects a spiritual journey as well This is where I lost my connection with the novel The story becomes increasingly brutal to read, with so many poor decisions on the part of the mother, the friend, and eventually the father as well I see dead people I could not get the echo of those words from M Night Shyamalan s 1999 movie The Sixth Sense out of my head from this point forward I know this portion of the book wasn t meant to sit well with the reader, but I just felt detached Perhaps it jumped back and forth a bit too much between narrators, or perhaps it was the ghostly voices that tormented me Much of the writing itself I found stunning, yet I can t quite pin down what unfastened me from the narrative I can t say I loved Sing, Unburied, Sing, yet I hugely appreciated it Despite the great sense of loss and the feeling of hopelessness in the face of such hardship in a place steeped with injustice, there is yet a quality of redemption that I cannot deny as being remarkable I just had a hard time reading it, and was not disappointed when having to set it aside frequently I will read of Ms Ward s work in the future. 2 stars blame it on the ghostsIt was the ghosts, folks It was the ghosts that made me do it They made me change my mind and go with 2 stars instead of my original 3 It s just that they were such a big part of this book If they had been smaller and kept their mouths shut, I would be handing you 3 stars I wanted to be closer in stars to my gushing friends, but that just didn t happen I didn t like this book, period And of course, I have a Complaint Board to prove it I did like a few things about the book, so let me start with the Joy Jar Mesmerizing language For a while, it took me to a cool place and created a strong mood Intense family I was interested in the family It s biracial, with a junkie mom, nice kids, kind grandparents, and a dad who just got out of prison They are poor and they live in the deep South He said, she said I liked the format of having two narrators who alternated chapters.Jojo was a nice kid One of the main characters, a 12 year old boy named Jojo, was super well drawn and sympathetic An intense car ride, punctuated by a lot of puke Yes, seldom do you see the word puke in the Joy Jar There was a harrowing road trip, which had me twitching with interest and fear Nearly half the book took place in a claustrophobic car full of sweat, vomit, and tension Inside were two poor kids and three drug addicted adults.But my Complaint Board is way fuller Here goes Sure, I ve always wanted to hear the gory details of a goat being slaughtered The very first scene, POW, a grandpa is showing his grandson how to kill and gut a goat Seriously I had to skip pages, it was so graphic The boy then carried goat parts into the house where these parts would be cooked and served for din din This scene threw me for a loop and I became very wary of what I was signing up for I will say that that was the only slaughter scene, but still what a way to start a book I know the author was going for authenticity yes, they are ruggedly poor people who eat goat but I do think the story would have been just fine without this scene.Get real They would if they could, but ghosts just can t get real Okay, I try to like ghosts and occasionally I can , but here they chased me right out of town I just can t shut up about these annoying ghosts, can I They are major characters here and I just wanted to shove them out of the book They took up a lot of space There were two of them one for each main character sitting in the back seat of a car or just walking around outside in general getting in the way of the real people And of course, there were entire conversations that took place between the ghosts and the main characters To make matters worse, the ghosts sometimes had their own chapters Oh no , I yelled, as I saw the ghost s name head the chapter I wanted to get back to the real story Real people Never mind that they are characters, lol, not real people Hm.if it had been a ghost who slaughtered the goat, would I have been less upset Lol, you have to wonder I like the scenery, but can we talk This is where the language did a little overkill in the mesmerizing department Rich language often turns into work for me when a lot of it is used to describe scenery I prefer dialogue, internal monologue, and drama Character clich s Except for Jojo, the characters just seemed to be stereotypes the junkie mom, the kind granddad I didn t feel any attachment.A little woo woo makes me weary Besides the ghosts, which were bad enough, there were magic herbs and an overall woo woo feel Let me out of here.Where did these big words that begin with i come from Here we are in the rural south with little education, and occasionally big words SAT vocabulary words with 4 or 5 syllables come out of the characters mouths Twelve year old Jojo, his junkie mom, and even a ghost uttered one of these three words inexorably, indomitable, immolating What I don t even use these words In fact, I had to look them up And there were several other sophisticated words and sentence structures An editor should have been checking the authenticity of voice better.Drama in the car Quite a tense car ride and except for the ghost squeezed below the seats, I liked it I don t want to give anything away, but based on the tone and content of the story, I thought things were going in a different direction than they did In a way, this seemed anti climactic Hand covering mouth so I don t reveal anything The name game Again, an editorial nit The mom always called her toddler by Michaela her twelve year old son called her Kayla Toward the end, mom was suddenly using Kayla instead This seemed like something the editor missed.Crawling along I found it slow going for most of the read Looking at page numbers is always a bad sign.As I said earlier, this is a book I desperately wanted to love, if for no other reason than to be part of the crowd I do think the writing is brilliant it s just not my cup of tea I liked Ward s earlier award winning book, Salvage the Bones, better, though it still only earned 3 stars from me I m pretty sure I won t try Ward s next one Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy. Beautifully written So many layers I don t know that there is another writer who captures the complexities of the south and the legacies of racism as well as Ward This is a brilliant novel But also, I did want the characters and the overall narrative to be fully developed, or perhaps multi dimensional An absolute must read, regardless.
Jesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped She is a former Stegner Fellow Stanford University and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.Her work has appeared in BOMB, A Public Space and The Oxford American.
- 285 pages
- Sing, Unburied, Sing
- Jesmyn Ward
- 13 March 2018 Jesmyn Ward