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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel

I believe that Jesmyn Ward is the voice of a generation. I adore her work, and I truly believe that her non-fiction piece Men We Reaped is one of the most important reads for everyone to ingest. When I found out at Book Expo this year that she had a new novel coming out, I almost cried with joy. More on the picking up of the novel later. This is Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Jojo's thirteenth birthday is spent where he usually spends his days -- in his grandparent's house, helping his grandfather while his beloved grandmother slowly dies of cancer. Days later his mother receives word that his father is being released from prison, and she packs her kids in the car -- Jojo and his little sister Kayla -- to go pick him up. Leonie, his mother, is an addict who fell in love with the man connected to her beloved brother's death. Motherhood doesn't fit her well, so picking up her man from prison is what she is living for. Their road trip to Parchman and back will deeply define Jojo's life and shape the man he will one day become.

This was one of those novels that was so stunningly beautiful that I had to take a breather and just revel in it. I had to stop, take deep breaths, and just realize the beauty that I was given in this novel. Ward has captured several characters deeply and fully, and she has taken great care in handing these over to us as her readers. Jojo is everything I hope to find as reader in a young boy. Often when I read stories told from the perspective of a preadolescent, they are overly young and reaching to portray a child who is a complicated and full being. Ward took this young boy and gave him life on the page, and he was incredible. I also found Leonie to be full-bodied and a complicated character, and while I didn't like her, it's important to distinguish that my dislike of her came from the creation of the character, and I feel that deeply speaks to Ward's ability to craft a character. I enjoyed reading her and disliking her for her willingness to abandon her family -- not just her children, but also her parents -- even as I felt great sympathy for her in losing her brother and falling in love with his murderer's cousin.

I also deeply connected with Ward's portrayal of her characters' dealings with addiction and how that drove their choices and their stories. It is a central story element, both using and transporting, and it was treated with a delicate and caring hand. We live in a world where addiction is treated as a class issue, a race issue, and a moral issue. Ward's book takes it on as a human issue and succeeds at presenting addiction in a world world context that doesn't begin or end with an after-school special moment.

This story was told in service to the characters, and it was deep for its short length. It was sold to me as a Faulkner-esque tale of a journey in search for self, and while I would say that I don't entirely buy this (I personally find Faulkner insufferable), I would say that the road trip that is in the center of this story was far more beautiful than anything Faulkner could have written. The journey out to Parchman and back serves Leonie's and Jojo's character development rather than serving as the point of the book itself. At least, that's how I read it. I couldn't recommend this book any more highly.

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