I have never read a Jesmyn Ward book before this one. I’ve always intended to, but never quite gotten around to it, so I was really happy when I was approved for this one through Netgalley. Sing, Unburied, Sing has a lot going on, and I really appreciated Ward’s writing style, prose, and the perceptions her characters brought to their stories. The book follows Leonie and Jojo, a mother and son with a strained existence on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Jojo and his younger sister Kayla live with their grandparents on a farm, with occasional drop-ins of Leonie, their drug-addicted mother. They’re all dealing with a lot: Leonie sees visions of her dead brother when she’s high, Mam (the grandmother) is dying of cancer, and Jojo is grappling with his lack of relationship to his mother, as well as becoming a teenager in an uncertain time. When Jojo and Kayla’s white father is set to be released from prison, Leonie takes them and her best friend with her to pick him up from the state penitentiary, and their journey is the focal point of the novel.
I’m not even sure where to begin with my review, because there is a lot to chew on here. From Jojo, who can’t stand his mother and is more of a parent to Kayla than Leonie is, to Pop, who was raised in Mississippi among the “good ole'” white boys who didn’t blink at killing a brown child, to Leonie, who really seems to want to be a good parent, the characters are each compelling and damaged in their own ways. Their relationships and intersections across gender and generation are interesting to read about. Pop and Jojo are obviously close, and that leads to Pop sharing stories of his time in jail when younger, though not always telling the whole story. Pop also worries about Leonie’s relationship to her children, but he’s rather taciturn and their relationship obviously has its ups and downs. The story flits between the perspectives of Jojo and Leonie, showing their relationship from both angles. Jojo is a likable protagonist, and easy to empathize with. Leonie, on the other hand, isn’t really likable, but as you learn her story, you can somewhat understand her, even if you can’t condone her actions.
The prose in the novel is well written. The writing style really drives aspects of the story home, including the many issues of race at play here. There’s historical race issues from Pop’s past, and there are the issues driving Leonie’s relationship to Michael, her children’s father, who is white and whose family refuses to acknowledge the children’s existence. The layers of racism and identity prevalent in the story are not easy to read, but are necessary and Ward does a very good job of tackling them head-on and without pulling her punches. While the story doesn’t necessarily have what I would consider a definitive ending, the point of this novel is the journey of the characters in it, and it’s okay to now know, as life is uncertain.
This novel is hard for me to say I enjoyed it. It was a difficult read, but also a read that was hard for me to put down. It gave me a lot to think about, and a lot of perspectives to consider. While not all the characters are likable, they’re all human and very well developed. Their lives play out issues that our country is still struggling with today, even outside of the Deep South. I read it very quickly, but know I’ll likely also go back to sit with it a little more on a re-read. It’s very timely and important and I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Note: I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
What novels have you read that honestly struggle with race and its many facets in our world today? Let me know in the comments!