Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing is Jesmyn Ward's senior novel. While I've had her Hurricane Katrina-related Salvage the Bones on my to-read list for a long time, when this book debuted as a Book of the Month offering, I immediately chose it, mostly due to the high praise it has received from numerous outlets and respected reviewers. I usually avoid uber-hyped books, but find I often regret doing so, so into the story I dove. This dark, gritty story takes place in southern Mississippi, and follows a mixed-race family dealt a depressing hand of blows: murder, racism, addiction, abuse, cancer, and neglect. JoJo is a young, biracial, teenage boy who has had to grow up too soon, raising his own baby sister, Kayla, because his parents are neglectful, selfish meth addicts. JoJo is not alone, however; he has Mam and Pop, his maternal grandparents, who offer the tender loving care he so desperately wants and needs. His Mam, a mystical healer, is dying of cancer, though, and his Pop can't stay still, constantly fixing things around their farm because he can't fix Mam. Leonie, JoJo's mother, flits in and out of his and Kayla's lives in between drug binges, during which she sees her dead brother. Michael, JoJo's father, is in prison. JoJo does his best to emulate Pop, and wants desperately to be a man of whom Pop and Mam can be proud. He helps Pop kill and clean goats for family meals, tend to the other animals, and fix things around their home. Pop, in turn, offers a steady presence for JoJo, and often tells him stories while they work. One story in particular is of Pop's time at Parchman, a work prison, where Pop was sent as a young man after getting caught in a bad situation not of his own doing. Pop dances around some details of the story, and all JoJo really knows is that Pop and another boy, Richie, were friends at Parchman, and Richie's story does not have a good ending.
When Leonie finds out that Michael is getting out of prison - the same one Pop was in long ago - she insists JoJo and Kayla accompany her and her fellow druggie, Misty, on the drive. One reviewer of this book called this portion of the story the "road trip from Hell," and indeed it was. Leonie's neglect and sheer lack of parenting skills and maternal instinct is on full display. Kayla is quite ill, and JoJo seems to be the only adult in the car, while Leonie and Misty stop off to score some drugs. Then, the second ghost of the story appears, a ghost from Pop's past, and only JoJo and Kayla can see him. This is when things start taking a more negative turn for me.
The morbid foursome eventually make it to Parchman to retrieve Michael, who at least seems like he wants to be a good father, but he lacks the fundamental skills necessary to be even a halfway decent one. After a disastrous traffic stop, an almost overdose, excessive vomit (yes, vomit), a violent confrontation between Michael and his racist parents, voo-doo rituals, and increasing interactions with ghosts, I started to feel my head spin, and my heart detached from the story.
Jesmyn Ward is clearly a talented writer, drawing the reader in with stark, descriptive language, and I came across some powerful ideas and internal dialogue. However, the mysticism and ghosts on ghosts on ghosts overpowered the narrative, and the hops from past to present between the different points-of-view were jarring and made reading feel like work. Frankly, in the last 10-15 pages, I was skipping over sentences because I felt bored and underwhelmed. With very little emotional pay-off at the conclusion, it felt anticlimactic.
The character of JoJo was a shining light in what was otherwise a dark, confusing tale. A child raising a child shouldn't even be a thing, but unfortunately, this is all too common a tale in "real life." JoJo is on the cusp of becoming a man, and his addict parents are ill-equipped to usher him into the next stage of life. He has that sort of silent strength and resilience only born from living through tragedy, and that makes the reader ache for a happy ending for JoJo, knowing full-well this isn't a "happily ever after" sort of tale.
Ultimately, the broader message, if there was one, was lost underneath the metaphorical magical realism, and that there was at least one ghost too many. In fact, I question the overall purpose of the ghosts to begin with - they seemed more like plot devices to move the story along and give it a mystical feel. If nothing else, this story is a sobering reminder that some people should never be parents, and that not everyone who is a parent has it in them to be a halfway decent one.
I am glad I read Sing, Unburied, Sing, and plan to read some author interviews to see if I can pick up on some things I missed. I can't say I'd recommend this book widely, but if you enjoy magical realism, vivid descriptions, and hard-hitting language, then you may want to give this one a try.
Have you read Sing, Unburied, Sing? How do you feel about the magical/mystical aspects? Do you agree or disagree with any of my observations? Let's discuss it in the comments below!
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