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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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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.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the novel America needs right now. Reading it will go a long way toward gaining an understanding of the divide increasingly felt throughout the country. If fiction's greatest asset is to engender empathy, this novel has more than pulled its weight. A true 5 star read that will endure long after most of the year's other "big" titles have faded away. Rarely have I picked up a new novel and known that I'm reading something historically good. This is a work that will be studied decades from now, and readers should glory in the opportunity to read and feel it at its original release.
This book is very hard to read; aside from the fact that the subject matter is current, as well as historic, it is also about the horrific brutality, that was and still is, often inflicted upon a people, regardless of their guilt or innocence; this behavior is unjustified regardless of the innocence or guilt, color, creed, nationality, religion or any other defining aspect of that victim. No behavior on the part of anyone can justify the unimaginable punishments meted out; the mutilation, the torture or even merely the humiliation of another, should not be tolerated by society, but in an advanced society, this criminal behavior of those in power seems much more egregious.
This book is an intense examination of the racial situation and the victimization they experience in their ordinary daily lives. Avoiding the injustice perpetrated upon them is almost impossible since it is rained down upon them according to the whims of the angry mob mentality of their abusers. It is not, however, I believe, because of white supremacy, a catch term that has taken hold as a rallying cry. Rather, to me, it is because there are simply hateful people with evil in their hearts who will justify their despicable behavior with any excuse they can muster up that will gain the support of other likeminded despicable creatures. This behavior is often obvious on both sides of any conflict, none is defensible.
Each chapter of this book presents the voice of one of the three major characters, Leonie, Jojo and Richie. Most of the dialogue takes place as Leonie drives her friend Misty and her two children, to pick up Michael, their father, from Parchman prison, as he has served out his sentence. On that ride, black life is very fully presented in view of their behavior and approach to life, and the behavior of others in the world toward them. Each of them, in their own way, is a victim of society’s injustice and the injustice of their own cultural environment. Each has to fight a system that overpowers them, that does not provide them with the tools they need to achieve parity.
As the book explores the history and lifestyle of its characters, it uses the dialogue between them, coupled with their individual thoughts and memories, to highlight the injustices that they have had to suffer, and even ignore, to avoid further retaliation. They were often in a position of vulnerability that allowed no bridge to justice. Although it is not specifically addressed in this book, it is this backward and forward looking at the situation that they faced that allows the reader to understand the anger that is boiling over in today’s society, even if they disagree with the methods now being used by some of those who are angry, since they justify their own brutality in ways not very different from the justification of abusive power used by their “enemies”. Those without power often seek not justice, but to overpower those in power to assume the same mantle of superiority, rather than equality.
I listened to the book and thought it might be better to have read it in print. Although the book was read well by several readers, to delineate the characters, I thought some portrayals were a bit excessive. At times, Leonie seemed too sultry and Jojo’s speech pattern, too stereotyped in its presentation. Richie was alternately portrayed as a young boy and as a man, in his tone of voice, perhaps to emphasize the passage of time. There was no way, however, to find any fault in the prose of this author; it is so far superior to that in many books written today. The choice of vocabulary and the way in which the words were combined made for an eloquent and often poetic presentation, painting pictures and images for the reader to see in their mind’s eye, sometimes making some of the scenes almost too horrific to imagine. The influence of the fear and often shame that constantly haunted the life of the victims, created hopelessness and an “underground” lifestyle. Norms in their world were often at odds with the norms in the world of others.
Throughout history, groups that have been abused by the prejudices of others have been blamed for bringing this abuse upon themselves because of their own behavior. If nothing else, this book will disabuse the reader of that fact. Nothing justifies the brutality or bigotry that the people of color have had to deal with because nothing makes brutal behavior toward anyone acceptable. No behavior on anyone’s part, no biological aspect of anyone’s body or cultural and religious choice makes cruelty toward anyone acceptable, in my opinion. While it may be impossible to prevent the expression of opinions, there is a proper and improper way to express those opinions. No behavior that threatens another should be acceptable. No behavior that intimidates another should be applauded. Everyone, I believe, has a responsibility to behave in an acceptable manner, at all times, without bringing harm to another, except in cases of unavoidable war to prevent just that kind of inhumane behavior, but we must be fully aware of the fact, that, that makes us guilty of being “the pot calling the kettle black”.
At the end of the book, while I felt I had really learned a great deal about society’s mistreatment of others, specifically, in this book, of those of color, but universally, as well, of all people who are powerless, I did not feel that there was any viable solution offered to make things more tolerable, to right the wrongs of racial injustice, or to bring back a return or an insurgence of common decency. Just as some of the characters were haunted by visions, so our society was and still is haunted by unjustified feelings of hate. Also, while the idea of the injustice and horrific prejudice and hateful behavior toward a group of people was excellently and honestly rendered, I wasn’t certain that the expectation of responsible behavior on the part of those victims was as fully explored. As both worlds were examined, however, the world of color and the world without, the bias and overt injustice experienced by those who were powerless were horrifying. It is a virulent disease spreading all over the world, as we witness, daily, the horrific violence inflicted upon populations that are weaker or less in favor then the one in power.
Regardless of the victim’s behavior, which is ridiculously, somehow supposed to justify the injustice, there is no acceptable excuse for any of the brutality or expressions of violence and hate that have become almost daily occurrences. Perhaps the haters have mastered the art of making this behavior so common that we have become inured to it and are beginning to accept it as normal rather than what it is, totally abnormal, a total aberration of the human condition and merely an expression of man’s inhumanity toward man.