Contemporary Literary Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and quote: '[...] I understood [...], that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.'

This contemporary literary fiction with elements of magical realism is portraying a poor black African-American family living in a fictional town in Mississippi. It is a tragic story of struggle and hope.

It is now! After days and days of looking at my notes on Sing, Unburied, Sing, the time has come finally put them into a somewhat coherent review. With all hype and all the literary praise it got, I knew it is just a matter of time before I will feel the urge to pick it up.

The story is told through two narrative voices, 13-year-old Jojo and his mother Leonie. But let’s take a closer look at all the characters.

Jojo is a boy with the responsibilities of an adult. He is mature for his age out of necessity. His mother is not much around and he assumes the role of caretaker for her baby sister Kayla. He looks up to Pop, his grandfather, as Pop is the only responsible adult around to look up to. He seems very wise and insightful for a boy of only 13.

Leonie is a young woman, haunted by the ghost of her deceased brother Given. She has two children with Michael, who is white, which adds to her problems, as their relationship is too deviating from the norm. Put it simply, she is a bad mother, to the extent that her children call her Leonie. She makes so many bad choices but is she a villain? Or is she a victim?

At first you don’t want to sympathize with her. At the end, reading through her perspective, you see how aware she is of her bad choices. She hates herself for being a bad parent. She is resigned to see her children turn to each other or her parents for comfort instead of her. She is an addict and she can’t overcome her addiction. Only when high she can see her brother’s ghost…

Pop and Mam, are the responsible adults in this family, the ones who still adhere to a moral code and are trying to impart those values to the grandchildren. They are the ones providing love, security, and safety for Jojo and Kayla. But they are running out of time. Mam is a healer but she is sick with cancer and Pop is hunted by his past at Parchman Penitentiary.

There are so many layers to this story and there is so much meaning packed into it that sometimes it felt too much. The novel is heavily character focused, so not much happening apart from the road trip Leonie takes the children on when Michael is released from prison (which is the same one Pop was in).

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a dark and beautiful ghost story about family, about being black in the American south. It is about grief, loss, abuse, brutality, race, injustice, addiction and so much more.

Reviewers compare this book to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Of the three I have read Lincoln in the Bardo, and I can definitely see where the similarities lay, as both of the novels are about ghosts, how they are trapped in this world and cannot move on.

I wanted to love this book but for me, it was too much. It is lyrical and poetic but I feel that it gave me no respite from hopelessness, until the very end, maybe. I recommend it only if in the mood for bleakness…

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