The other weekend, my cousins and I were visiting my sister at her apartment. Owing to the heat wave, we stayed indoors as much as possible, and when we went out, we brought with us ice-cold water bottles filled to the top. While we were there, she showed us around the neighborhood, and of course, when we saw the bookstore, we just had to go in. I made two purchases that day: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while, and, upon my sister’s recommendation, Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a sweltering book, perfect for the dog days of summer. It captures the mood of a day so hot it makes the air shimmer, one where the sunlight microwaves your brain within your skull. The jacket aptly describes it as “part ghost story, part road novel.” It’s set in rural Mississippi, and toward the beginning, the timing is hard to place. At certain points, it feels as though it could be set during almost any time in the second half of the twentieth century, at least until mentions of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill fasten it much closer to the present.
Leonie, a black woman, is the neglectful mother of two children, thirteen-year-old Jojo and toddler Kayla. In their daily lives, the children depend on their maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, to take care of them. When Michael, their white father, is released from prison, Leonie takes the kids along on a road trip to pick him up. The twist is that the prison in question, Parchman Farm, is the same place where Pop had been incarcerated many years before. Jojo, knowing this, begins to uncover the haunting story of Pop’s past. Meanwhile, Mam lies bedridden at home, slowly succumbing to cancer.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to this story, but within the context of the book, these elements connect in a sensible manner. The story is told in alternating perspectives with two main threads: Leonie’s road trip and Jojo’s ghost story. There isn’t a sharp distinction between the threads, and we occasionally see the same event from the viewpoints of more than one character.
Jojo is a caring, gentle boy who is fiercely protective of his sister. He is observant and in some ways mature beyond his years, but there is still an undeniable boyishness to his thought processes. Leonie, on the other hand, is caught in a state of arrested development along with Michael. She and Michael are a sort of modern Romeo and Juliet, two youths in love despite a blood-stained color boundary between them. Leonie’s immaturity and shortsightedness make her perspective less enjoyable to read than Jojo’s. While her past motivates some of her behavior, it does not, in my view, fully explain the extent of her actions and inaction throughout the novel.
The plot is neatly woven together, and magical motifs give the story a pleasant blush of color. Ward uses lush descriptive prose to bring the pages to life; however, her description is more effective in some places than others. In slower stretches of the book, mainly the road portion, the writing can be unnecessarily purple. There are pieces of dialogue padded by descriptions that had my eyes jumping right past them before I caught myself. Still, in other sections, the same style of writing shines. The first and last chapters are especially compelling. Jesmyn Ward is a writer with prodigious talent in this area, but I think that to give her writing maximum impact, she should use flowery language with a bit more restraint.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a distinctly American book. It tells its own story by incorporating those that Americans are familiar with. Slavery. Segregation. Inhumane prisons. Lynching. Racism. Police violence. It hints at the politics underlying the disasters of Katrina and the BP spill, lets them seep into the environment of the story without making them the main focus. And Parchman Farm, formally known as Mississippi State Penitentiary, is a real prison with a dark history. Ward mixes beautiful literature with harsh realism, giving the story a bite that has made it stand out to both critics and the reading public.
While I recognize the merits of this book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated. Since it was so highly rated by others and recommended to me by my sister, I was hoping to be wowed, because usually my opinions do line up decently well with critical consensus. In this case, that didn’t happen. I am admittedly not much of one for road novels, so it may just not be my type, but I also think there are real weaknesses that have been glossed over with the hype around it. Sing, Unburied, Sing has the literary style signature to M.F.A. writers, of which Ward is one. That style tends to be popular with critics– it ticks certain boxes in their requirements for what makes a good book. Don’t get me wrong. It is a good book. It is not, my opinion, a great one, and that’s fine.
If you’re stuck with long hours on a road trip this summer or trapped inside by the heat, Sing, Unburied, Sing will match the mood magnificently. If you’re ordinarily a fan of critic’s picks, it’s probably up your alley. If you’re looking to read a novel with relevance to current events, you’ll find them seamlessly integrated into the fabric of this story. My one caveat is that this book contains dark themes including explicit violence and drug use.
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