Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, Sing

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.

At first, I was very confused by where this was going. The POVs sort of jumped all over the place, and it was downright depressing. But then it occurred to me that these are the stories that families like mine don’t tell–the stories of the bodies that form the roots of their family tree, the ones that fell from the branches, or were pulled down, and those who are left to seed.

This is both a book about a road trip AND a ghost story, and neither are optimistic. The pages are literally covered in vomit from beginning to end, and the whole thing reeks of it. These people are surrounded by family, but their circumstances drag them down down down and Jesmyn Ward holds back nothing as she shows us exactly what race, poverty, and drug addiction will do to a person. Add in grief and cancer–it’s just a devastating mess.

Phew. That is a lot of sadness in one paragraph. I should tell you that the writing is fantastic. The book is not an easy one to get through because of the subject matter, but there are a lot of people comparing this to Morrison or Faulkner. Personally, I had a hard time connecting to it, but from a reviewer’s standpoint, this book is going to get a lot of acclaim–Ward has already won a National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her take awards for this one as well. I rate this somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I struggled with it, but that doesn’t at all negate the author’s brilliance–more my personal shortcomings.

NetGalley and Scribner’s provided a copy of this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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