Sing, Unburied, Sing appears to be taking the literary world by storm and immediately became a must read for me. And there’s something about the cover I find so appealing!
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.
I was immediately drawn to Sing, Unburied, Sing after reading the blurb and I must say the blurb is incredibly accurate, it delivers what it states, however, there were some elements that I found incredibly distracting and this prevented me from being able to fully immerse myself in this novel.
Ward does a wonderful job portraying just how lacking Leonie and Michael are as parents, and I liked that this was portrayed through their total disregard of their children, eg. Leonie putting her drug habit and her desire for her children’s father above the needs of her children, rather than through constant hard-to-read, descriptive child abuse paragraphs.
The most heart-warming part of this novel, for me, was Jojo’s relationship with his younger sister, Kayla, watching him be both a brother and a parent to her, shouldering that responsibility instead of being the carefree young thirteen-year-old he should have been. A large part of this novel takes place during the drive to the State Penitentiary and there were some wonderful moments on display between these siblings. However, I was frustrated as I felt these were largely over shadowed by vomit – that’s not a secret code, Kayla threw up a lot, and I found the descriptions, for example, Jojo hugging Kayla with both of them covered in sick, rather off-putting. Yes, it showed Leonie not tending to her children as she should, but it just wasn’t pleasant reading and it was a distraction as I didn’t see what was gained from it happening so many times, and it took away from what should have been tender moments.
There’s no denying Wards ability to create lyrical prose and yes, the language is distinctive as a whole, however, I felt there was no distinction between the characters narration. The chapters alternate from the viewpoint of Jojo, Leonie and Richie, but their voices all read the same – usually when chapters are narrated from alternate viewpoints, each character has their own “voice” and even without it stating at the beginning of each chapter who is narrating, you know who the narrator is but here I felt the characters lacked that individual distinction. That’s not to say you get confused, because you certainly don’t, based on the content you’re reading and the fact that it does clearly state the character’s name at the start of each chapter, you’re able to follow this plot without any issues, but I felt it took away from the individuality of the characters and thus prevented the connections to the characters, mainly Jojo, that is essential for you to be invested in this novel.
I’ve seen many reviews saying they didn’t expect the magical realism elements or ghosts in this novel, and I don’t really think that’s a fair reason to criticise this novel [not based on the above blurb anyway], because it clearly states “At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering.” If this element didn’t work for you for x and y reasons then fair enough, but if you simply don’t like/want this in your novels and the blurb states this is within the novel, then you can’t fault it on its existence alone.
While this novel does deliver what the blurb states, I was hoping the themes would run deeper and we’d see themes of race and poverty explored in more detail, especially in relation to Jojo “trying to understand what it means to be a man.” I can’t help but feel something was missing in this novel, that there should have been [or was and I missed it] a deeper message/meaning behind the lyrical prose. The strongest theme in this novel was grief but there were many themes explored but at a surface level and thus I struggled to connect with this plot in the way I hoped. This is by no means a bad book but, in terms of recommending novels that explore family bonds and the other themes within this novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing would not be top of my recommendation list.