Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

— Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

While beautifully written, I don’t think Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward was the book for me. Knowing that Ward is a fellow University of Michigan alum and that Sing, Unburied, Sing was on Barack Obama’s 2017 reading list, I desperately wanted to love this book, but I only liked it.*

*Which, I should note, is still a good thing and I do recommend this book if you are a fan of literary fiction!

Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of one family, their struggles, and their strengths. The story starts with Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy who idolizes his grandfather and wants to be a man just like him. Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is struggling even more. With her children’s father in jail, past traumas haunting her, and a drug addiction, Leonie is not equipped to raise Jojo or her daughter.

The bulk of this story revolves around the journey of the family as they go to pick up the children’s father from jail. On the road, the family face more struggles that challenge their ways of thinking and makes them question the lives they are living.

There was no question that this book was beautiful and heartbreaking. As a literary fiction, it excelled. However, some logistical problems kept me from fully falling in love with this family’s story.

Just to quickly list them out:

  • The timeline was unclear. 
    There were times when it was obvious there was a flashback happening, but other times the flashbacks or memories were nestled into the chapters. This threw me off at times and I found myself having to go back and reread sections to figure out where in time I was.
  • I didn’t truly understand the character of Richie.
    While I know Richie was a very important part of Pop’s backstory, I don’t know why he had to be included in Jojo’s story. It seemed like Jojo was not at all receptive to Richie or his message. It didn’t seem like Richie served much of a purpose except to weave some supernatural elements throughout the story.
  • The magical realism wasn’t clear.
    The magical realism throughout this novel is what left me confused most of the time. It was never clear if the “ghosts” the family were seeing were actual ghosts or hallucinations or something else entirely. While Ward wrote these moments beautifully, I didn’t quite understand how the family was seeing these supernatural occurrences and why.

My biggest issue with this novel is that, by the end, I didn’t understand why I was told this story. The issues presented at the beginning were not resolved by the end. A lot of this novel could have been removed and the ending would have stayed the same. While I felt Ward’s prose was masterful, I felt like it didn’t progress the story at times.

Despite those negatives, I do think Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important novel that needs to be out in this world. It doesn’t shy away from racism or drug abuse. It talks about these issues and doesn’t glamorize them. It shows how racism has caused many of the family’s struggles. From Pop’s time in prison to the murder of Given to Leonie’s children having a white father, the family in this novel has always faced struggles due to racism. Sing, Unburied, Sing also shows how drug use has kept Leonie from being a mother to her children and how it has pulled them away from her. This novel takes the ugly things from this world and writes about them lyrically, which left an unsettled feeling in my stomach.

Overall, I liked this book. It gets a solid three out of five stars from me.

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