Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Well, damn. I went into this book with high expectations, and for me it was rather a letdown. With the amount of praise it received, winning the National Book Award and being one of the top 10 best books of the New York Times in 2017, I was expecting to be blown away by this book. In other words, Sing, Unburied, Sing just wasn’t for me.

The novel is about a poverty-stricken family living in Mississippi, rampart with racism and discrimination. Thirteen year old Jojo having to take care of his three-year old little sister Kayla, since her birth, even with his Mam and Pop living with them. His mother is Leonie, a drug addict and troubled woman, who he calls by her first name, not mom, because she is nothing like a mother. Their father, Michael, is in Parchman prison, about to be released.

Leonie packs her children into the car to go on a road trip to get Michael from prison, leaving behind the two figures the children see more of as parental figures than their own mother, and with her own Mam dying with cancer. This trip is riddled with danger and destruction, drawing out the ghosts each character faces along the way. We witness not only a physical journey through the state to get their father/boyfriend but also a spiritual one.

Early on it’s clear Jojo takes on the responsibility and hardships of an adult but can also hear and see things others cannot. His mother, Leonie, can also see and hear her dead brother, Given, while under the influence of drugs.

Anyone else hearing the little boy from the movie “The Sixth Sense” saying, “I see dead people?” These scenes throughout the novel where they bring in voices of ghosts and dead relatives really through me through a loop. I guess they really didn’t make sense to me and the narratives between the characters and when they see and/or speak with the dead were very confusing.

The angst and sorrow this family goes through was difficult for me to get through as well. As a white, young, female I had difficulties understanding the language at times and the cultural divide was a bit too much. Ward’s use of Southern writing style was haunting in a way that captivated me as a reader, but also confused me.

The raw and emotional toll each character faces, from racism, drug addiction, abuse, poverty and grief in one way or another really left an impact on me. And because I’ve dealt with some of the major issues faced in this book (drug addiction, abuse and grief), this might explain why I was so put off by it.

I’m now going to be very blunt in saying, I feel this book is difficult to get into if you’re not an African-American. From use of language and culture, to even racism and discrimination, I had a hard time connecting to certain aspects. But on the other hand, from poverty, drug abuse, and grief I could relate on a personal level.

I had to put this book down a couple of times and try to pick it back up. I’m not one for not, not finishing a book, and this was for a book club. Either which way, I was finishing this book. While I didn’t love it, there were parts I found captivating and haunting on a personal level, but overall, I certainly had way too high of an expectation of this novel going into it.

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