Published by Scribner on September 5th 2017
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.
“Knowing that tree of ghosts is there makes the skin on my back burn, like hundreds of ants are crawling up my spine, seeking tenderness between the bones to bite.”
It is not very often that I read a book that leaves me feeling completely gutted. Sing, Unburied, Sing drew me in very slowly, but ultimately, very completely. This is a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.
At its heart, this novel is a case history of how the past and present weave together to connect and divide us in turn, both individually and collectively. Though many books seek to convey similar messages, I can’t think of any that do so in such a uniquely subtle yet profound way.
Every character in this book, ghosts included, is complex and plays an important role in binding together this story that addresses so many relevant, uncomfortable issues. Racism, class, drugs, child abuse/neglect, the exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful, and most types of family dynamics, functional and dysfunctional, are examined. There is a lot packed into just 285 pages.
With regard to the ghosts in the story, I feel it bears mentioning that I did not find them to be the sort that are found in scary movies or even like those in other books such as in Lincoln in the Bardo. I don’t want to get into spoilers so I can’t say more but they were an integral part of the story. I hope you will appreciate their presence as much as I did. This story could not have been told without them.
I appreciated the author’s ability to convey such emotion without writing in an way that could be considered melodramatic. She tells the story in a relatively quiet and beautiful, straightforward way. There is no need to use language meant to shock or sensationalize. She allows the characters and events to speak for themselves.
When I finished Sing, Unburied, Sing, I felt emotionally drained. The weight of the sum each character’s suffering was crushing. That is not to say there weren’t moments of hope, empathy, and compassion. There were a few. But this book is definitely one that causes the reader to contemplate some grievous subjects.
I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Ward speak at the Adult Author’s Breakfast at BEA this year. I was previously unfamiliar with her or her work but I became very excited about this book after having heard her speak. I will certainly be among the first in line for whatever it is she writes next.
Many thanks to Scribner for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Renee (Itsbooktalk) says
Excellent review Ann Marie! I appreciate you saying something about the ghosts, I’ve seen mixed reviews on Goodreads about that so I was curious. Every once in awhile I’m in the mood to be emotionally drained by a story so I’m keeping this in mind!
Ann Marie says
Thanks, Renee. This was a really tough review to write as I didn’t want to simply repeat what’s in the blurb, yet it was difficult to do much more without adding spoilers. I felt that the ghosts were so important in that they represented so much more than their former, living selves. They added a dimension that brought a lot to the story and caused me to reflect on so many things.
So happy I’m reading this one soon! And perfect review without revealing too much!
Ann Marie says
Thanks, Annie. It quite different than anything I’ve read lately. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Susie | Novel Visits says
Love your review Ann Marie. You beautifully got at the essence of Ward’s story without giving up its heart. I’m glad you addressed the ghosts head on. I think some people hear ghosts and don’t want to go on, but they were certainly not what we typically would think of. I also found this a hard book to review because it was so gut-wrenching.
Ann Marie says
Thanks, Susie. I went back and forth about addressing the ghosts outright in my review. It’s not something I would normally comment on in that manner. But I feel strongly that this is a book that needs to be read and I’d hate to see anyone on the fence forgo reading it because of them.