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Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of September 2017: A slamming, heartbreaker of a novel that is rendered with such stinging beauty and restrained emotion that despite the anguish taking place on the page, you won’t want it to end. For her third novel, National Book Award winning Jesmyn Ward, tells the story of Jojo, a young black Mississippi boy raised by his grandparents, who is forced to become a man far before he should because his mother is a drug addict, his father is in jail, and his baby sister needs a guardian. When Jojo’s dad is released from prison, Leonie packs Jojo and Kayla in the car, picks up her meth addled friend and drives north. What transpires is a nightmarish journey that weaves in and out of the present – Leonie’s meth induced highs, when she dreams of her dead brother who was killed by white hands decades ago, and the past -- when a man named Ritchie served time alongside Jojo’s grandfather. Sing, Unburied, Sing shimmers with mythic southern memories to tell a story of the drugged and the damned and the fluttering promise of youth. --Al Woodworth
"Ghosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing — a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (a place rich in oil rigs and atmosphere, if almost nothing else), the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward's own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior ... Ward, whose Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award, has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Grade: A."
"However eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America."
—The New York Times
"Staggering ... even more expansive and layered [than Salvage the Bones]. A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Ward’s novel hits full stride when Leonie takes her children and a friend and hits the road to pick up her children’s father, Michael, from prison. On a real and metaphorical road of secrets and sorrows, the story shifts narrators — from Jojo to Leonie to Richie, a doomed boy from his grandfather’s fractured past — as they crash into both the ghosts that stalk them, as well as the disquieting ways these characters haunt themselves."
"Sing, Unburied, Sing is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.”
—New York Times Book Review
"Sing, Unburied Sing is Ward’s third novel and her most ambitious yet. Her lyrical prose takes on, alternately, the tones of a road novel and a ghost story ... Sing, which is longlisted for a 2017 National Book Award, establishes Ward as one of the most poetic writers in the conversation about America’s unfinished business in the black South."
"While the magical element is new in Ward’s fiction, her allusiveness, anchored in her interest in the politics of race, has been pointing in this direction all along. It takes a touch of the spiritual to speak across chasms of age, class, and color ... The signal characteristic of Ward’s prose is its lyricism. “I’m a failed poet,” she has said. The length and music of Ward’s sentences owe much to her love of catalogues, extended similes, imagistic fragments, and emphasis by way of repetition ... The effect, intensified by use of the present tense, can be hypnotic. Some chapters sound like fairy tales. This, and her ease with vernacular language, puts Ward in fellowship with such forebears as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner."
—The New Yorker
"[A] tour de force ... Ward is an attentive and precise writer who dazzles with natural and supernatural observations and lyrical details ... she continues telling stories we need to hear with rare clarity and power."
—O, the Oprah Magazine
"Electric ... a harrowing panorama of the rural South."
—L.A. Review of Books
"Gorgeous ... Always clear-eyed, Ward knows history is a nightmare. But she insists all the same that we might yet awaken and sing."
"The novel is built around an arduous car trip: A black woman and her two children drive to a prison to pick up their white father. Ward cleverly uses that itinerant structure to move this family across the land while keeping them pressed together, hot and irritated. As soon as they leave the relative safety of their backwoods farm, the snares and temptations of the outside world crowd in, threatening to derail their trip or cast them into some fresh ordeal .... The plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, 'The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.' Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation."
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Set in rural Mississippi, told from each character’s point of view, we learn about the untimely and extremely unfortunate deaths of two people, different generations, both a result of racial strife, who come to haunt a mother and her son. The young boy, Jojo, our protagonist, is caught in a difficult position in his family. He has a seemingly uncaring mother yet the extreme love of his grandfather. He is also the primary caregiver to his sweet baby sister who has rejected their mother, with good cause.
The grandfather, known as Pop, is wise beyond his years and his wife, Mam, who is dying of cancer, equally so. They have enough love to give, despite having lost a son and raised a selfish daughter, perhaps who took a wrong turn as a result of drugs or when she married a louse who is in jail.
Pop has seen more than his eyes can bear. But he knows that he has lessons to teach. Mam does as well, and she reigns from her bed, even in her weakest state. Jojo, perhaps the wisest of them all, sees beyond this life, but he is still learning.
SING, UNBURIED, SING is a lyrical piece of literature that I hope will become an enduring staple just as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is in our school reading programs.
Jojo and his little sister Kayla are children of Leonie, who is a drug abusing mother with zero mothering instincts. The three of them live with Mam and Pop, Leonie's parents and the children's grandparents. Jojo is like the surrogate father, as Leonie is often gone and the father, Michael is locked up in the notorious Parchman prison. Kayla reaches to Jojo for succor and nurture much to Leonie's dismay. Jesmyn is great at writing viscerally, and the reader will feel the simmering emotion of Jojo. Jesmyn subtly takes on poverty, racism and drug abuse. We get to experience the drug use along with Leonie. Leonie has hooked up with Michael since high school and he is the white father of her two kids. It was a sense of two broken souls recognizing each other that brought them together.
"Because I wanted Michael’s mouth on me, because from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm." Michael's parents never approved of the union and didn't meet their grandchildren until JoJo was a teenager and Kayla a toddler as they stopped by their house on the way back from picking up Michael after a three year stint in the prison.
Jesmyn brilliantly uses that actual road trip to take readers on a virtual trip thru the lives of Leonie, Pop and Man, and also Given. Given is the older brother of Leonie who lost his life to one of Michael's cousin's. Leonie often can see and hear Given, she finds these visions comforting especially when she is high. Jesmyn has layered the book on different levels, weaving past present and future in a haunting magnificence. Pop often regales young Jojo with stories about his life and his own stay at Parchman. Pop is struggling in dealing with Mam who is dying of cancer and Jesmyn 's writing around the decay and devastation of cancer and Mam's way of dealing and exiting this life is the phenomenal highlight of a book that has many. The novel moves back and forth in time, eventually coming full circle, and it is mostly through Pop and Jojo's interactions and conversations that this five star tale gets flushed out. Pop has some psychological scars from his time at Parchman and shares with Jojo bits at a time. This adds a bit of suspense to the novel, because readers will want the complete story of what happened. It seems he tells Jojo the same beginning and middle parts of his Parchman stay, but never the ending, well the ending of Pop's story coincides with the denouement of the novel and the book title will be clearly and fully brought to light. An excellent undertaking by Jesmyn Ward. I received an advanced reading copy from Netgalley in exchange for a review. The book will publish Sept. 5, 2017.
As a different Amazon reviewer put it, I think Richie's story would have been far more movingly presented as straight narration from Pop (also a sympathetic character and JoJo and Kayla's strong, caring grandfather). I just got frustrated and a little irritated by the images of him curled up on a car floor and a room's ceiling, for example. And chaotic death bed scene with Mam also kind of weakened the often powerful story. I can understand Given haunting his family and his presence at his mother's death and in his sister's mind as she makes choices she knows will hurt her or her kids -- that's ghost as metaphor and one whose emotional resonance is easy to relate to. Not so the presentation of Richie as a kind of "living ghost," as it were.
Ward's a fine and powerful writer and this was an important tale to tell -- not a good one, but an important one on several levels. But the use of magical realism in the form of Richie distracted and diminished the last portion of the book for me.