I've been meaning to read Jesmyn Ward for ages. I first heard about her with Salvage the Bones, which was published back in 2011. And I'm pretty sure that is sitting about in my physical TBR somewhere. But naturally I haven't read it. There has been a lot of hype about Sing, Unburied, Sing since it was published in 2017. It won big name prizes and Obama named it as one of his best reads of the year. I was interested initially, but then put off a bit as I'd heard a lot of people referring to it as a ghost story of sorts, and that's not really my thing. Or I thought it wasn't, but maybe it is.
Recently I was organising my TBR for a short holiday in Thailand. And of course I wanted to take lots of books with me, but my friend had booked us as carry on only! One small suitcase with a 7kg limit- not much room for books in there. I ended up taking two books (and only reading one of them), and a whole stack of audiobooks on my phone. I listened to about three quarters of Sing, Unburied, Sing on the way to Kuala Lumpur and then finished it off after I got home as I was too busy holidaying to listen to any audiobooks while I was away. As is pretty much always the way.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a story told by three narrators. It is Jojo's 13th birthday in the opening pages of the book. He lives with his grandparents and younger sister Kayla in the rural Gulf Coast of Mississipi. His grandfather, Pop, slaughters a goat in the first few pages, it is such a memorable start, and was the sample I heard on Audible, and had me hooked, and keen to listen further as it was both grisly and beautiful at the same time. Jojo's mother Leonie is around but not particularly involved in the lives of her kids. Leonie is the second narrator, and she is self-absorbed and horrid. The third narrator is Richie, a young boy who was in prison with Jojo's grandfather when he was a young man. Richie died many years ago, and yes he's a ghost.
Jojo's father Michael is about to be released from prison after three years away, having previously worked on the BHP Deepwater Oil Rig which exploded in 2010. I can't remember that we get told why Michael has been in gaol but Leonie and her friend and colleague Misty embark on a road trip with the kids to pick him up. Apparently the multiple narrative voices and road trip across Mississipi evoke Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a book I haven't ever been brave enough to pick up. The road trip was one of the less interesting storylines of the book for me.
While Sing, Unburied, Sing is a "ghost story", it's so much more than that. I was surprised by how much I accepted the ghostly aspects, and that they really didn't bother me at all. To me it is a book primarily about race, and also class, poverty, drugs, incarceration, violence, illness, death and dying. It is great story telling, and beautiful writing. But it's an unusual book in that I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read the book, rather than listened to it. Once I settle on an audiobook I'm usually grateful that I listened to it.
I really loved the narrator of Jojo's chapter, but found the woman doing Leonie very distracting. She was all Eartha Kitt and breathy, which didn't sound like Leonie at all to me, and I heard the narration more than I heard the story. I would like to read Sing, Unburied, Sing sometime. I think I'd enjoy it even more second time through, and also as a read.
This little passage stuck with me
Some days later I understood that he was trying to say that gettin grown means learning how to work that current, learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.as it echos that sage advice of Kenny Rogers from so long ago ....
Jesmyn Ward answering questions about Sing, Unburied, Sing on PBS.
Jesmyn Ward author event at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. We're I've been quite a few times, but never to an event. Well not yet. Jesmyn calls Sing, Unburied, Sing a book about death, and that is one of the reasons why she opened with a death.
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