Literary Fiction

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

19 September 2018
Sing, Unburied, Sing Book Cover Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jesmyn Ward
Simon and Schuster
September 5, 2017

WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, the Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic. Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed). Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).


Sing Unburied Sing is an exposure of aspects in American society that are uncomfortable to acknowledge but are told with a pointed, honest and heartfelt sense of purpose. Jesmyn Ward airs these issues in an unabbreviated depiction of poverty, drug abuse, and racial discrimination in the USA’s Southern states.

The narration is told alternately through the eyes of 13-year-old JoJo and his 31-year-old mother Leonie in vivid detail and sense of surroundings. JoJo is the son of a black mother and white father, Michael, and they have very much experienced racial abuse and discrimination. Leonie, JoJo and her daughter Kayla, live with her mother (Mam) and father (Pop) while Michael is in prison. Pop has really been JoJo’s father figure but is haunted by past events and is currently nursing his dying wife with cancer.

The first two-thirds of the story are quite gloomy and disturbing, while Leonie, JoJo, Kayla, and friend Misty take a road trip to collect Michael as he gets released from Parchman Prison, Mississippi. A very strange character, Richie, joins Michael and the family on the way home. Part of the narration is then taken up by Richie and his probing dialogue with JoJo indicates he has unfinished business.

JoJo is a very unique, sensitive and empathetic young man, who deals with his sick sister with such care and attention it incites jealousy from their ill-equipped mother, Leonie. The delirious Kayla only wants to be comforted by JoJo.

The underlining theme in the novel is one of racial discrimination and abuse and it touches all the characters. What becomes apparent in this poetic incision into the history of racial crimes, is that there are unfinished or untold stories that need closure. The horrors of these crimes are unfathomable and the lives they touched need closure. The song needs to be sung! Sing Unburied Sing!

I felt the book was quite downtrodden for the first half. In complete contrast, the second half of the book continuously ramped up, again and again, until we have an extremely powerful and captivating end to the story. The pressure to narrate a story with a history of such horrors and an obligation to maintain dignity and recognition for those that suffered, is superbly managed by Jesmyn Ward in this book.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing UK and NetGalley, for an ARC version of the book in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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