Fiction, Reviews

Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

32920226

Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Scribner

Release Date: 5th September 2017

5 STARS

SET IN MISSISSIPPI

 

What can I say – one of the best novels of the year so far. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is part Southern Gothic, part American road novel, part Steinbeck-esque story of people and place. It explores not only the family dynamic of Jojo, his grandparents and his drug addicted mother, but also their ties through the ages – to the dead and the living.

The Blurb: 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.

The scope of this novel is vast and yet it feels intimate right from the opening pages. Through Jojo’s description of helping his grandfather kill and gut a goat we are very quickly drawn into the poor, rural, Southern setting and Jojo’s relationships with his sister, grandfather and mother. Ward’s descriptions and observations are visceral and unadorned with sentiment, yet we feel immense sympathy for the young man she presents. She at once paints a very personal picture of Jojo’s family life and also shows us the broader legacy of slavery and racism in the South.

Jojo’s mother, Leonie is a drug addict and hopelessly in love with the white father of her children. Rejected by his racist family, Leonie spirals deeper into addiction, haunted by the ghost of her brother who was killed by her lover’s cousin. Ward presents a character here who is pitiful and a terrible mother. She is incapable of acting in a way that is unselfish and frequently places her own desires above those of her children. What is so effective about Ward’s characterisation is that Leonie is not villified. She is just flawed and human and exposed to us with all her failings on display.

I was worried that Ward might try to cram in too much – this book was billed as drawing on The Odyssey after all – and not give us time to bond with the characters, especially Jojo, in her drive to link the characters to other points in time, but she does this superbly. The frequent jumps in time and narrator do nothing but enhance a rich tapestry of story. The magical realism elements are seamlessly interwoven with the main narrative and we accept without question the spectre of Richie and the tale he tells of Riv, Jojo’s Pop, and their imprisonment in Parchment which leads to the dramatic conclusion of the novel.

This is such a gorgeously written book – poetic but flowing, contemporary and timeless. I would urge everyone to read it.

 

@jesmimi

 

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.

 

 

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