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

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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.

 

 

10 Best Books in a Blizzard

With the last blast of March winter upon those of us on the US east coast – need something to curl up with whilst you’re snowed in? Why not try some of these classic books with wintery settings…

11250053 “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

Set in Alaska in 1920, this wonderful novel follows Jack and Mabel as they struggle to survive in the harsh environment they find themselves in. After building a child out of snow who mysteriously vanishes, they are drawn into the life of Faina – a young girl who appears to have stepped from the pages of a fairytale book. But is everything what it seems to be…

This book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and has won numerous awards.

 

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“The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

Homer Wells has been brought up in an orphanage in Maine under the tutelage of Dr. Wilbur Larch. Isolated at St Cloud, he assists the doctor with caring for troubled mothers, delivering illegitimate children and taking them into the orphanage. When Homer meets a young couple who arrive seeking an illegal abortion, he finds himself wanting to explore the world beyond his upbringing.

This is a book full of heartbreak that encompasses the morality of abortion, war, love, disability and legacy.

 

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“The Tenderness of Wolves” by Stef Penney

This book is full of suspense and adventure – part historical epic, part murder mystery, it follows a disparate band of wilderness residents as they seek to follow a mysterious set of tracks in the snow that they hope will lead them to the answers to a brutal crime that has been committed. The setting brings an eerie cruelty to the novel as the characters seek missing people, fugitives and the past before the snow covers the tracks left behind for good.

The novel won the Costa Book of the Year prize.

 

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“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

There’s no winter harsher than a Russian winter and this classic novel is considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever produced. Following the doomed and tragic love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky, this epic story reveals the hypocrisies of nineteenth century Russian society through a sweeping look at familial and romantic relationships.

Often cited as the ‘greatest book ever written,’ it explores jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, progress and passion.

 

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“Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin

When Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar decides to rob a house on the Upper West Side, little does he know that it will lead to love. The relationship between Lake and Beverly Penn, a free-spirited but ultimately doomed young girl is the perfect foil to that of Lake and local gang leader Pearly Soames, who sets his sights on destroying Lake. Set in a mythical, semi-Edwardian New York at the turn of the twentieth century, this novel has a mystical quality that will totally absorb you.

Heavy on the language – you need to set time aside for this one.

 

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“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier

If epic sweeping historical fiction is your thing, you’ll love Cold Mountain. The novel follows the arduous journey of a civil war veteran, Inman, as he struggles to get home to his betrothed, Ada, who has been left behind to try and survive on her father’s farm with the help of a practical young drifter named Ruby. As their stories begin to weave back together, Inman and Ada have to confront how much has changed since Inman left – with the physical and political landscape, but also themselves.

This won the National Book Award for Fiction.

 

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Granted, the snow is mainly contained to the start and end of this classic Gothic tale, but it is still one of the most evocative pieces of Victorian science fiction in print. Victor Frankenstein, exhausted and found ranting in the Arctic wilderness, retells the tale of the creation of the monster that now stalks him through the wasteland. Originally developed from a ghost story told by Mary Shelley to her friends in Geneva when she was just 18 years old.

Don’t let the fact this is a school book classic put you off.

 

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“A Breath of Snow and Ashes” by Diana Gabaldon

As the sixth book in the wildly popular Outlander series, I wouldn’t suggest diving in here without taking a look at the others. Set in 1772, Highland exile Jamie Fraser and his time travelling 20th Century wife, Clare, are commissioned to quell a growing rebellion in the American Colonies – but knowing the ultimate direction of the War of Independence, Clare and Jamie find themselves caught between knowing the future and living in the past.

This is a great romp through the 18th Century – dashing heroes, gutsy heroines and action and adventure galore.

 

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“The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis

Is there truly a more perfect snow bound book than this children’s classic? I re-read the whole Narnia series every year and I am always in awe of how such simple, beautiful prose can evoke such a complex, magical world. Four children are swept into a magical adventure when they find a mysterious portal into a world trapped in permanent winter. Will they be able to break the spell and release Narnia from the grip of the White Witch?

Please, please, please read the book and don’t watch the movie.

 

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“Fargo” by Joel and Ethan Coen

Alright – it’s not technically a novel, it’s a screenplay – but it still ticks my boxes for a read that perfectly balances tension and humour. Pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson finds herself investigating a murder in snowy Minnesota. Trying to maintain her professional dignity in the face of numerous quirky personalities, Marge needs to solve this quickly if she’s to get out alive…

For this one you can watch the movie!

 

So whilst the wind is blowing and the snow is snowing – try some of these, wrap up warm and put the kettle on. It’ll be over before you know it.