Friday, January 5, 2018

Contemporary Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Just as I had Jesmyn Ward close out 2017, I am having her work open 2018 with the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing. It is one of those books I worry I will not be able to do justice in my little review, but I will give it my best.

The Situation: Thirteen year-old Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla live with their mother's parents, Pop and Mam, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Jojo, just on the cusp of becoming a man, learns all he can from the steadfast and reliable Pop, while also looking after his little sister in the absence of his drug-addicted mother, Leonie, and his incarcerated father, Michael. Mam spends all of her time lying down in her room as she slowly and painfully dies of cancer. When Leonie receives a call from the Mississippi State Penitentiary with the news that Michael is getting out, she decides to take the kids with her to retrieve him. It's a road trip Jojo does not want to take, and Pop feels the same way, but Leonie is determined to take her kids with her to get their father. 

The Problem: Unfortunately for both Jojo and Kayla, Leonie has zero maternal instinct, and Mam says it best when she describes her daughter as letting the love she has for herself get in the way of any love she is supposed to feel for her children. Leonie simultaneously resents the way Kayla reaches for her older brother instead of her, and also looks for opportunities to run off and live a life without them, a life where it would only be her and Michael. The road trip in and of itself is hard enough. The ultimate goal may be to retrieve Michael from prison, but the family must also deal with Mam's impending death, Pop's unintelligible stories about his past, the racism of Michael's parents, and the ghost of Leonie's brother that only visits her when she is high. And just because the road trip ends, it does not mean that the adventure is over.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the modern day Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The point of view changes from chapter to chapter, mostly alternating between Jojo and Leonie, but occasionally allowing Richie, a boy Pop knew from his past, to have a say once in awhile. Switching between Jojo and Leonie allows for two almost completely opposing points of view for the exact same situations. Jojo is always looking out for Kayla, and wants to desperately show that he can take care of the both of them without any interference from Leonie, especially when he has done so well with such limited involvement from her or Michael. Leonie is always looking out for herself and Michael, and has little interest in anyone else, including her own children. For her, everything is about being with Michael and where she will find her next high. The reader does not get to see much from Pop's point of view, but he does tell Jojo stories from his own time in Parchman farm, which is what the Mississippi State Penitentiary is known as. And of course, Kayla is too young to tell her own story, but she clearly prefers Jojo's company over everyone else, something that bothers both Leonie and Michael. To say that the relationships in this family are complicated would be an understatement. Plus there is the deep south racism to deal with, both in the present day, and in Pop's past. 

My Verdict: I think what I appreciate most about this book is that there is so much here in less that 300 pages. Often when a book is that short, it feels like something is left out, or everything was rushed. I do not get either feeling with this book. Instead, all themes and plot lines feel fully explored with nothing being abandoned or forgotten by the end of the novel. And while switching between points of view can be confusing in some books, or cause some chapters to be less interesting than others, neither of these things occurs here. Jojo's viewpoint is frustrating in the sense that he is only 13 and can only do so much without the intervention of an adult, and Leonie's viewpoint is frustrating because she is so unapologetically selfish. The road trip is most of the novel, but still somehow only one small part of it, which is both surprising and delightful. Like I said, there is a lot here.

Favorite Moment: When Kayla manages to throw up all over a cop.

Favorite Character: Pop is one of the most trustworthy and steadfast characters in all of literature. He has is own past to fight and problems to deal with, but he does not let that get in the way of him doing what he needs to do when it comes to his family.

Recommended Reading: Salvage the Bones also won the National Book Award back in 2011. Though I did not enjoy it as much, I will still recommend it as a companion for this book.   

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