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{September 30, 2019}   {Review} Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

From Goodreads: Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

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Jesmyn Ward is a beautiful writer, her words flowing off the page like poetry. Her characters are deeply realistic, and I found myself really enjoying this novel. Even though I hated Leonie, and wished her ill many a time as she narrated her story of selfishness and drug riddled episodes, the story is raw and real, one from which I could not look away. Jojo’s story is heartbreaking, and I felt surges of both sadness and anger for him as he narrated his story of growing up too fast in an inhospitable post Katrina world.  I really felt for Jojo and his toddler sister, Michaela. I just don’t understand how people can be so incredibly selfish that they put themselves before their own children. Yet, it happens everyday in the real world; the news is cluttered with instances of parental shortcomings.  It’s disheartening, but real, and Ward’s novel expertly captures these poignant and raw relationships.

While the writing and characters are extremely well written and vivid, the one aspect that I wasn’t so much in love with in this novel was the magical realism. Magical realism and I have never been good friends, and while I do understand its purpose, I felt that Ritchie’s story blending into Jojo’s was more so confusing than insightful in the very end. I’m not 100% positive, as Ward doesn’t explain it, but I believe Jojo has “the sight.”  Without giving too much away, what I will say is that Jojo’s mother and he both see ghosts, but not the same ghosts, and not for the same reasons. Leonie’s ghost is that of her deceased brother, Given, who only shows when she is in the throws of a high, born out of guilt. However, Jojo’s ghost, Ritchie, shows up for the first time halfway through the novel seeking answers that only Jojo’s Pop can provide, if only Jojo can convince Pop to finish telling him the story of his time at Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. Ritchie’s story is powerful, laying bare the life of Jojo’s idol, Pop, and the soul-crushing choices one must make when faced with impossible decisions. Up until this point, Pop has repeatedly told Jojo the beginning of the story of Ritchie, but he never verbalizes the end, an end that Ritchie, like Jojo, needs to hear in order to move on. This I do understand, but the story doesn’t end there, when I thought it would. Instead, more ghosts show up, and I’m not sure why or what is really happening there at the end–like I said, Magical Realism and I aren’t good friends. Regardless, though, the story itself is beautifully told, and if you get the chance to listen to this novel via audio book, I highly recommend it! Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk, and Rutina Wesley give the novel life with their bold and emotional narration, bringing the story, the lyrical prose, and the characters to life in a way reading off the page cannot. Four stars.

I borrowed the audible of this novel from the library.

Did you know that you can try a FREE TRIAL of Audible for 30 days? Try it today!

Kindle | Audible | Paperback | Hardcover

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