Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Rating: 4/5
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Description from Goodreads:

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.

My thoughts:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward was one of the fiction nominees in the Goodreads Choice Awards last year, a list that I’ve been making my way through. One chapter in and it was clear why it was nominated.

Jesmyn Ward’s writing style in this book is incredible. She gives such incredibly detailed descriptions, without it being boring. The story starts off with a gruesome scene of a pig being slaughtered that was just so raw and detailed that it actually made me cry, something I don’t tend to do when reading.

This is a very character-driven story, following the lives of members of an African-American family in the south.

The story deals with the problems of racism and poverty in the south in a very emotional way. This is shown through both present day experiences and interactions as well as flashbacks from Jojo and his mom, Leonie, and stories from Jojo’s grandpa. It really illustrates how terrible things were decades ago, but also how things haven’t really progressed the way they should have by now.

It also has an element of dealing with ghosts from one’s past, with both characters literally being visited by ghosts and dealing with them.

The story is told from the perspective of both Jojo and Leonie, with each chapter switching from one character’s point of view to the other. A third PoV character is added about halfway through.

Starting off from Jojo’s perspective, I hated Leonie. She seemed like a distant, drug-addicted parent who was never around, and even when she was around, totally incapable of raising a child.

As the book progresses, however, I started to see the sadness she feels from watching Jojo take care of his baby sister in a way that she does not. For example, there’s a part where the baby is throwing up and they need to get it to drink, but she would only drink when Jojo was holding her. I really felt for Leonie here. Even though she seems like a crappy parent, she does love her children and you can see that she feels a lot of sadness and regret in that moment and in other moments throughout.

That’s not to say I forgive her for the problems she has. She’s still clearly a pretty terrible parent. I think I feel more pity for her than anything else.

The constantly changing perspective makes things really interesting. You go from Leonie trying to do something helpful for her kids, to seeing that same scene from the perspective of Jojo with the complete opposite reaction. I love me a good unreliable narrator, and I especially love getting to see both sides of the story.

This book shows the dynamic of a real family with real problems and I loved the brutal honesty of it.

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