Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and winner of the National Book Awards for Fiction in the US, Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel Sing, Unburied, Sing can only be described as a slow ballad – the type that makes you cry.

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This emotive story carries a great deal of tension.  First in the fractious relationship between a mother and her son, second through the impending death of the matriarch of a family, third through the impending release of a prisoner and fourth through the overarching narrative of racial injustices.

There is a lot to talk about here but for me the most touching part of the story was in the relationship between a young teenager, Jojo, and his little sister.  His unflinching love and devotion is beautiful as is the reciprocal nature of his sister’s reliance upon him.

They are each other’s light.

Jojo’s journey into manhood and acceptance of knowing his mother will never be the type of mother his grandmother has ended up being toward him is unbelievably touching.  His assumed responsibilities and ambivalence toward his father really pull on the heart strings as well as his bravery in the latter chapters.

Ward’s choice of narration is to be applauded.  The story is told through three narrators: Jojo, his mother Leonie and a ghost (yes, a ghost) Richie.  Despite the fact that the reader is able to see both Jojo and his mother’s side of the story you are hard pressed to feel any sympathy toward the mother.  Perhaps it is because Jojo is a young child.  Perhaps it is because there is little to like about Leonie.  Even with her attempts at being a mother are half hearted and more of an opportunity for her to lament at her failures both as a mother and as a daughter.  Her only success seems to be in her drug infused infatuation with her lover. Even that is strained by virtue of the fact she is one part of an interracial couple – something her lover’s father cannot accept.

Above all of these tensions, there is something spectacular about this novel.  With notes of magical realism it reminded me a lot of Ruby by Cynthia Bond another novel highlighted by the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

I won’t give the story away – it is too good to do that.  Pick it up and read it.  Tell me if you managed to read this without shedding a tear.

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