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Sing Unburied Sing A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn WardIn Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty first century America Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner The Odyssey and the Old Testament Ward gives us an epochal story a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle Ward is a major American writer multiply awarded and universally lauded and in Sing Unburied Sing she is at the height of her powers Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla live with their grandparents Mam and Pop and the occasional presence of their drug addicted mother Leonie on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and uiet steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm the Mississippi State Penitentiary on a journey rife with danger and promise Sing Unburied Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power and limitations of the bonds of family Rich with Ward’s distinctive musical language Sing Unburied Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature


10 thoughts on “Sing Unburied Sing

  1. Debbie Debbie says:

    2 stars blame it on the ghostsIt was the ghosts folks It was the ghosts that made me do it They made me change my mind and go with 2 stars instead of my original 3 It’s just that they were such a big part of this book If they had been smaller and kept their mouths shut I would be handing you 3 stars I wanted to be closer in stars to my gushing friends but that just didn’t happen I didn’t like this book period And of course I have a Complaint Board to prove it I did like a few things about the book so let me start with the Joy JarMesmerizing language For a while it took me to a cool place and created a strong mood Intense family I was interested in the family It’s biracial with a junkie mom nice kids kind grandparents and a dad who just got out of prison They are poor and they live in the deep South He said she said I liked the format of having two narrators who alternated chaptersJojo was a nice kid One of the main characters a 12 year old boy named Jojo was super well drawn and sympathetic An intense car ride punctuated by a lot of puke Yes seldom do you see the word “puke” in the Joy Jar There was a harrowing road trip which had me twitching with interest and fear Nearly half the book took place in a claustrophobic car full of sweat vomit and tension Inside were two poor kids and three drug addicted adultsBut my Complaint Board is way fuller Here goes Sure I’ve always wanted to hear the gory details of a goat being slaughtered The very first scene POW a grandpa is showing his grandson how to kill and gut a goat Seriously I had to skip pages it was so graphic The boy then carried goat parts into the house where these parts would be cooked and served for din din This scene threw me for a loop and I became very wary of what I was signing up for I will say that that was the only slaughter scene but stillwhat a way to start a book I know the author was going for authenticity—yes they are ruggedly poor people who eat goat—but I do think the story would have been just fine without this sceneGet real They would if they could but ghosts just can’t get real Okay I try to like ghosts and occasionally I can but here they chased me right out of town I just can’t shut up about these annoying ghosts can I? They are major characters here and I just wanted to shove them out of the book They took up a lot of space There were two of them one for each main character sitting in the back seat of a car or just walking around outside in general getting in the way of the real people And of course there were entire conversations that took place between the ghosts and the main characters To make matters worse the ghosts sometimes had their own chapters “Oh no” I yelled as I saw the ghost’s name head the chapter I wanted to get back to the real story Real people Never mind that they are characters lol not real people Hmif it had been a ghost who slaughtered the goat would I have been less upset? Lol you have to wonder I like the scenery but can we talk? This is where the language did a little overkill in the mesmerizing department Rich language often turns into work for me when a lot of it is used to describe scenery I prefer dialogue internal monologue and drama Character clichés Except for Jojo the characters just seemed to be stereotypes the junkie mom the kind granddad I didn’t feel any attachmentA little woo woo makes me weary Besides the ghosts which were bad enough there were magic herbs and an overall woo woo feel Let me out of hereWhere did these big words that begin with “i” come from? Here we are in the rural south with little education and occasionally big words SAT vocabulary words with 4 or 5 syllables—come out of the characters’ mouths Twelve year old Jojo his junkie mom and even a ghost uttered one of these three words inexorably indomitable immolating What? I don’t even use these words In fact I had to look them up And there were several other sophisticated words and sentence structures An editor should have been checking the authenticity of voice betterDrama in the car uite a tense car ride and except for the ghost sueezed below the seats I liked it I don’t want to give anything away but based on the tone and content of the story I thought things were going in a different direction than they did In a way this seemed anti climactic Hand covering mouth so I don’t reveal anythingThe name game Again an editorial nit The mom always called her toddler by Michaela; her twelve year old son called her Kayla Toward the end mom was suddenly using Kayla instead This seemed like something the editor missedCrawling along I found it slow going for most of the read Looking at page numbers is always a bad signAs I said earlier this is a book I desperately wanted to love if for no other reason than to be part of the crowd I do think the writing is brilliant; it’s just not my cup of tea I liked Ward’s earlier award winning book Salvage the Bones better though it still only earned 3 stars from me I’m pretty sure I won’t try Ward’s next one Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy


  2. Emily May Emily May says:

    I washed my hands every day Jojo But that damn blood ain't never come out Such a stunning bookSing Unburied Sing captivated me almost instantly THIS is how character driven family dramas should be and there's nothing uite like a nice bit of dysfunctional family drama to keep me turning pages But I don't want to diminish the strength of this novel It is a character study of a contemporary African American family in Mississippi but it is also a darkly beautiful story about ghosts In the literal and figurative senseWard creates a really strong sense of place I could easily picture this rural poor Southern setting with its history of racial tensions that have never uite gone away From the beginning I knew this was going to be something special The writing pulls you into this world into the minds and lives of the vivid characters They burn so brightly The sky has turned the color of sandy red clay orange cream The heat of the day at its heaviest the insects awoken from their winter slumber I cannot bear the world Into this setting the author introduces the perspectives of Leonie a drug addict increasingly haunted by the ghost of her brother Given who was shot by a white football player The other main perspective is Leonie's teen son Jojo who is of a parent to his young sister than Leonie has ever been They live with Leonie's parents known throughout as Mam and Pop the former ravaged by chemo and the latter haunted by the ghosts of his own dark pastMany stories from the past emerge through Mam and Pop including the story of young Richie a prisoner from Pop's tales of his time in jail Richie also occasionally takes the narrative in between Pop's revelations about the horrors inside Mississippi State Penitentiary and the gradually uncovered truth of Richie's fateIt is rich in glorious horrific detail from the very opening when Jojo assists Pop in gutting a goat Ward evokes emotions with description the grisly unravelling of the goat's innards Leonie's dreamy drug induced escapes the sticky swampy atmosphere The I read the I felt the air clinging to my skin and the I felt the characters getting under it Sing Unburied Sing is a story both dark and bright Issues of race death and extremely messy family dynamics are prominent features but the brightness is obtained from the author's overwhelming empathy for her characters even at their worst Leonie is a terrible mother but she is portrayed as nothing or less than a messed up human being Pop's history will paint him in an increasingly unflattering light but do we forgive him? Of course we doA gorgeous though dark story for anyone who loves complex families and messy lovable characters It deserves every bit of the hypeBlog | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Youtube


  3. Roxane Roxane says:

    Beautifully written So many layers I don't know that there is another writer who captures the complexities of the south and the legacies of racism as well as Ward This is a brilliant novel But also I did want the characters and the overall narrative to be fully developed or perhaps multi dimensional An absolute must read regardless


  4. karen karen says:

    oooh goodreads choice awards semifinalist for best fiction what will happen? Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need no matter how hard you look Sometimes it withholdsso i’ve been meaning to review this for a couple of weeks now and it’s a real challenge because there is no universe in which i feel ualified to convey how damn good this book is up there it’s compared to morrison and faulkner the odyssey and the old testament and that’s probably true but i’m no authority i’ve only read one book each from morrison and faulkner the parts of the odyssey i liked best all involved monsters and the old testament seems to flavor nearly every book i love all that vengeful grit litwestern stuff where people do the wrong thing for the right reasonsbut none of that even comes close to what i got out of this book for one thing her writing is phenomenally seductive but it’s the kind of seductive that hypnotizes you right into a steel trap or like OH I GET IT NOW the sirens in the damn odyssey i’d never read her before but you better believe i’m going to dig up my copy of Salvage the Bones because this right here is the kind of writing that i adore pure storytelling strong descriptions bleak situations with a spoonful of magical realism on top there are two narrative voices here thirteen year old jojo and his mother leonie the family dynamic is very messy leonie is a drug addict who has left jojo and her three year old daughter kayla in the care of her elderly parents mam and pop breezing in and out of their lives in varying stages of sobriety and maternal inclination while their father michael is incarcerated on drug charges mam is slowly dying of cancer and pop is haunted by the past but he is devoted to the children an absolute rock in the maelstrom addiction and neglect are bad enough but ward gives the family an extra layer of conflict leonie is black michael is white and his racist parents disapprove of their relationship so much that they have no relationship whatsoever with their grandchildren still not bad enough? nope says ward and gives that knife one shakespearian twist when they were teenagers michael’s cousin killed leonie’s brother given; a hate crime passed off as a hunting accident and now when leonie is high she sees given’s ghost a presence unable to communicate with her but he makes his disapproval of her choices uite obvious that ward isn’t one to take the easy road is clear just by introducing these elements but she also refrains from passing too easy judgments or allowing her readers to do so the natural impulse would be to sympathize with jojo and the difficulties of his life his birthday party is downright heartbreaking while making leonie the villain; a mother who does cocaine while pregnant who abandons her children who is impatient and inept at the very basic responsibilities of being a mother however in her POV chapters we see what she could be if she weren’t an addict; her good intentions and her self loathing at all her parental failures her helplessness in overcoming her addiction despite how much it has cost her seeing the disappointment in her son harden into resignation seeing kayla reach out for jojo never for her seeing her father distance himself from her”Leonie” Pop saysI wish he would call me something else When I was younger he would call me “girl” When we were feeding the chickens Girl I know you can throw that corn further than that When we were weeding the vegetable garden and I complained about my back hurting You too young to know pain girl with that young back When I brought report cards home with As and Bs than Cs You a smart one girl He laughed when he said it sometimes just smiled and sometimes said it with a plain face but it never felt like censure Now he never calls me by anything but my name and every time he says it it sounds like a slapit’s hard not to feel pity for herthis book is a superlative literary achievement in every waythe road trip is so vividly written muggy and claustrophobic and perfumed with a toddler’s vomit it takes you right into all the unpleasantness and tedium of a long car ride and it is relentless the children are the best i’ve ever read jojo is a sponge of a character a dour observer internalizing the world’s lessons passing judgment as silently as given taking on the responsibility of caring for kayla in perfect little man fashion and kayla is so realistically written that she feels like a hologram sweet cranky needy sick every scene she’s in made it feel like watching than readingbut my most appreciative praise is reserved for how ward maintains emotional balance throughout and ultimately resists either some cheesily happy ending or a shakespearian heap of bodies; snowballing tragedy for tragedy’s sake it sticks its landing perfectly realistically nuanced and whatever a less overused synonym for “complicated” is to sum up there is no universe in which i feel ualified to convey how damn good this book is ombudsmen will say three but the third is a ghost and only gets three chaptersif reader responses built rocketships and mathematical precision really mattered i would pipe up and confess that i did not love the last page and a half so it would be just shy of five stars but no one's going off to colonize mars on my say so so five stars it is full review to comei'm only about halfway through but so far this is an easy five star book stay gold bookcome to my blog


  5. Felice Laverne Felice Laverne says:

    Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest It is a novel that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read and I mean that both literally and figuratively There is so much within these pages—so much angst so much wonder and so much sorrow—that I am still grappling with it even now And that’s a wonderful thing the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their readerI read before reading this novel that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern day Faulkner and I doubted this I admit likely because of all the books out there I’ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other greater works only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons But Sing Unburied Sing is the real deal Its utter humanity and heart churns and brews on every page particularly leading up to the climax never shying away from the reality of hard living always staring it down right in its face urging us to look it in the face too Don’t turn away I could never turn awayThis is the tale of two Mississippi families one black and one white joined by bloodshed and bloodlines Joined by love and hatred by death and birth But this is also a coming of age story of one teenaged boy Jojo whose life is forever changed Jojo is the biracial son of the often high often absent Leonie—who sees her murdered brother Given in drug induced hallucinations—and Michael whose hostile racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half breed children Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three year old sister Kayla and learning to be a man from his grandfather Pop But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home a place of comfort and togetherness between Kayla and Pop—until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is what she is capable of and what she will never be “When I wake Michael’s rolled all the windows down I’ve been dreaming for hours it feels like dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of MexicoJojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow But the raft must have a hole in it because it deflates We are all sinking and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us I am trying to keep everyone above water even as I struggle to stay afloat I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe but then Kayla sinks and I push her up and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle but they won’t stay up they want to sink like stonesthey keep slipping from my handsI am failing them We are all drowning”If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting Ward’s novel offers that in spades Here in the blazing sun of Mississippi you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters’ brows feel their pulse as they confront one another—as they confront themselves The suffering within these pages was tangible palpable like a pulse in the air a drumbeat at the turn of every page It marked the characters’ lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page But Ward goes beyond that—beyond the uintessential tale of Southern burdens anguish and racial hate beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror My one note of criticism is that the voices didn't always sound realistic for the characters JoJo and Leonie's chapters often sounded like they were coming from the same voice the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some thangs and that rang false to me But when I say that  Sing Unburied Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest I mean that it binds bridges and merges every aspect of the genre—social commentary magical realism surrealism and grit Blood sweat tears but most of all haunting and poetic soul That it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voicesThis novel will stay with me for a long time There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like but that all came together in the end And uite honestly I haven’t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and for that I could only ever give a well deserved 5 stars I received a copy of this novel from the publisher Scribner via NetGalley in exchange for an honest reviewFOLLOW ME HEREGoodreads | Twitter | Instagram | Get a Copy of My Book | Book Editing Author Coaching Submit Your 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  6. Paromjit Paromjit says:

    This is a profoundly moving novel that tears your heart apart from the hugely gifted Jesmyn Ward It is Southern Gothic at its most impressive set in the burning heat of the Mississippi Gulf coast It speaks of neglectful parents ill euipped to bring up their mixed race children The black Leonie is a drug addict and troubled woman moving in and out of 13 year old JoJo and his toddler sister Kayla's lives as they reside with their beloved grandparents Mam and Pop who provide safety security and love for them They call their mother Leonie not mum as she is scarcely a mum Leonie resents this and the close bond between JoJo and Kayla Kayla turns to JoJo to have her needs met Their father Michael is in Parchman prison about to be released This is a story of poverty love grief loss abuse brutality race injustice family addiction and ghosts It tells of the ugliness of US history and how it informs the present The pain of the black experience as it moved seamlessly from the plantations in the past to the prison today from one nightmare to another Mam a healer has cancer and is dying Pop tells his stories like that of the doomed Richie at Parchman to JoJo a boy with responsibilities and a maturity way beyond his years and a boy who can see and hear what others cannot Under the influence of drugs Leonie can see her dead brother Given which both frightens and comforts her Leoni packs her children into a car embarking on a road trip to meet Michael who she loves on his release from Parchman On a trip that brings danger and destruction and the truth of Leoni and race to JoJo The ghost of Richie searches for home in a songThis is a novel that journeys into the soul of Mississippi its history and people vibrating and shimmering in the air and land Nothing disappears it is all there informing the present with spirits and ghosts seen by those with the sight Ward writes with humanity and insight painting an unflinching portrait of a nation and its people It is lyrical and poetic and amidst the heart of darkness and pain is hope and love Her complex and nuanced characters rich descriptions and compelling narrative spirits and ghosts are the song of Mississippi and the US A hauntingly brilliant read which I highly recommend Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC


  7. Elyse Walters Elyse Walters says:

    I listened to the audiobook of Salvage the Bones a couple of months ago I was so engrossed it was almost hard to distinguish one talent from the other the narrators voice or the authors writing Jesmyn Ward was a new author to me I remember I cringed at times and thought the language was beautiful NO SPOILERSmany other reviews came before me excellent ones describing the plot and sharing about the characters I read Michael's review which had me running to find this book on Netgalley I didn't even know a new release was coming out His review is wonderful I recommend reading his review its terrific I wrote this review mostly in context 'AS A WHOLE'not many details about the characters and the story However this novel will stay with me a long time Its wonderful I like it even than Salvage the Bones and I liked that tooI enjoyed 'reading' Jesmyn's writing very much no audiobook this time Page after page there is wonderful prose I loved how the story begins I like to think I know what death is I like to think it's something I could look at straight When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants I leave Mam sleep in her bed and my little sister Kayla sleep on a blanket on the floor and I follow Pop out the house try to keep my back straight my shoulders even as a hanger; that's how Pop walks Jesmyn is a magnificent writer and storyteller Although an easy storyline to follow itself I spent extra time thinking about the individual characters Visual pictures were solid in my brain Each one of characters were dealing with transition change suffering and other lossesEach character in this novel had to confront the curves life threw at them be it illness drugs poverty racial ineuity massive disappointments fears regret abuse narcissistic illusional protection and other realities every human being would prefer to avoid Morning breakfast anyone?Cold goat for breakfast with gravy and rice was cooked in a pot that Pop tells Jojois leaking cancer into the food because the enamel on the inside is peeling off like paint Isn't this the way you start your day? And greet your kids with news of their first morning meal? Yeah thought so Kidding aside about the breakfast there's a great deal of sadness in this novelbut WE FACE OUR THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS WITH GRACE because Jasmyn Ward is skilled in opening up our hearts and mind to take a deeper look at some very serious issues without leaving us the readers to bleed to death either Jasmyn has crafted an important path to understanding about ourselves the world we live in and the nature of realitya touch of spiritualistic mythology Thank You Scribner Netgalley and Jesmyn Ward you have me wanting to read your other books


  8. Candi Candi says:

    35 starsWell this was certainly an intense beautifully written novel I have to admit I went into this with some very high expectations but also with a bit of reluctance I have seen much praise lavished on this book and deservedly so despite my lower ranking compared with many of my trusted and much respected Goodreads friends I also had prior knowledge of a fairly large dose of magical realism which can sometimes muddy my enjoyment of a book However I took the plunge grabbed a copy and immersed myself in the ugly reality of poverty racism drug addiction and grief Every major character in this book is haunted by either physical ghosts or his or her own imaginary but all too real demons from a troubled past My heart bled for thirteen year old Jojo and little sister Kayla who have been all but bodily abandoned by their emotionally detached and drug addicted mother Leonie Raised by Mam and Pop the children are still fortunate enough to be given a fairly healthy dose of love and compassion from these devoted grandparents Jojo who is forced to grow up so fast at such a tender age admires his grandfather and aspires to emulate him and earn his respect I liked most of the things Pop did liked the way he stood when he spoke like the way he combed his hair back straight from his face and slicked it down so he looked like an Indian in the books we read in school on the Choctaw and Creek liked the way he let me sit in his lap and drive his tractor around the back liked the way he ate even fast and neat liked the stories he told me before I went to sleep And stories did he tell In particular Pop shares one story involving his time spent in the penitentiary up in Parchman But there are holes in this story that Jojo longs to have filled in Mam grieving the wrongful death of her son years ago is now on her own end of life journey as the cancer that once tried to claim her has now returned with a vengeance She’s too sick with the cancer that came and left and returned steady as the rising and sinking of the marsh water in the bayou with the moonUpon hearing that Jojo and Kayla’s father Michael is to be freed after a three year stint of his own up at Parchman Leonie decides to pack up her kids to greet him on his day of release Jesmyn Ward then takes the reader along with Leonie a fellow junkie named Misty and the children on a ride through Mississippi to the gates of the state penitentiary Not only do we witness a physical drive through the state but the remainder of the book reflects a spiritual journey as well This is where I lost my connection with the novel The story becomes increasingly brutal to read with so many poor decisions on the part of the mother the friend and eventually the father as well “I see dead people” I could not get the echo of those words from M Night Shyamalan’s 1999 movie The Sixth Sense out of my head from this point forward I know this portion of the book wasn’t meant to sit well with the reader but I just felt detached Perhaps it jumped back and forth a bit too much between narrators or perhaps it was the ghostly voices that tormented me Much of the writing itself I found stunning yet I can’t uite pin down what unfastened me from the narrative I can’t say I loved Sing Unburied Sing yet I hugely appreciated it Despite the great sense of loss and the feeling of hopelessness in the face of such hardship in a place steeped with injustice there is yet a uality of redemption that I cannot deny as being remarkable I just had a hard time reading it and was not disappointed when having to set it aside freuently I will read of Ms Ward’s work in the future


  9. Larry H Larry H says:

    Profound poetic and at times painful to read Jesmyn Ward's Sing Unburied Sing is searing truly a soaring literary achievement that I won't stop thinking about anytime soonJojo is 13 years old on the cusp of manhood but in some ways still very much a child longing f


  10. Hannah Greendale Hannah Greendale says:

    Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel From Beginning to Bookend Heartbreak prevails the past materializes in haunting forms and Jesmyn Ward's prose sings in this brutal coming of age set in Mississippi


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