Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: On Appreciating, Yet Not Loving A Book (Part 2)

Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn WardFiction
Released September 5, 2017
285 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Scribner)


Though I can see why the critics love Sing, Unburied, Sing, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it and had trouble connecting with the story.

Plot Summary

Set in Mississippi, the story of JoJo and Kayla, two mixed race children who grow up in their black grandparents’ house (with the sporadic presence of their drug addict mother, Leonie), and the road trip to pick up their white father (Michael) from prison.

Why I Read It

Though I didn’t finish Ward’s previous National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, I wanted to give her latest a try since it, too, was a Finalist for the National Book Award.

Major Themes

Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Drugs, Race, Poverty, Family

What I Liked

  • The writing is unquestionably the star of this book. Its first line and chapter (and really the whole book) are raw and vivid and I was highlighting like crazy throughout. It’s the kind of writing that’s sparse, hard-hitting, and can really gut you at times, which usually works well for me.
  • JoJo and Kayla are heart-breaking characters and I wanted to wrap them up and take them home with me. They go through an incredible amount of trauma caused by the adults.
  • And, Pop (Jojo and Kayla’s grandfather) does his best trying to parent them in their parents’ absence. He’s the wise character trying to shape JoJo into a good man and I adored him.
  • The story has a mystical quality similar to Sara Taylor’s The Shore (my review). Ward’s writing about the land, the weather, the animals and their connection to the human spirit sets the atmosphere and there is also a bit of herbal medicine going on. I liked all these elements, but the mysticism went a bit too far for me in other ways (see below).

What I Didn’t Like

  • The feeling I had while reading Sing, Unburied, Sing was similar to how I felt while reading A Gentleman in Moscow (Part 1 of this post topic) and, to a certain extent, Exit West. These books are critical darlings and I could objectively see the elements that have the critics falling all over themselves. But, something in each book didn’t quite connect with me and I kept zoning out while reading. I’m glad I read them, but was never dying to pick them up along the way. And, while I can tick off a number of positive attributes about each one, I can’t say I loved reading them or would widely recommend them to others.
  • A large element of the story involves a ghost named Richie and that entire storyline didn’t work for me. I didn’t see the purpose in him having such a big role in JoJo and Kayla’s story and, even if I accept that role as it was, I don’t understand why he had to be a ghost. His story could have been told another, less perplexing way.
  • This is absolutely not the book for you if you’re looking trying to read for entertainment or to escape…it’s an emotionally tough read.

A Defining Quote

All’s quiet in the house, and for a stupid second I wonder why Leonie and Michael ain’t arguing about him hitting Kayla. And then I remember. They don’t care.

Good for People Who Like…

Grit Lit, emotional gut-wrenchers, gorgeous writing, serious literary fiction, critical darlings

Other Books You May Like

Another emotionally tough book that mystically roots you in its setting:
The Shore by Sara Taylor (my review)

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  1. renee wrote:

    This one didn’t appeal to me and after reading your points I think I may a good choice in not picking it up. I became bored with A Gentleman in Moscow and DNFed it and wasn’t inclined to pick up Exit West either. Sometimes I think when the literary critics gush, I run the other way haha:)

    Posted 10.19.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Me too and I wish I’d stuck to that a bit more this year! The Man Booker is particularly terrible for me…

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  2. I don’t mind a tough read like that from time to time but I’m not sure about the ghost aspect.

    Posted 10.19.17 Reply
  3. Annie wrote:

    I didn’t get past the second chapter… I was so excited to read it and one chapter and I was already bored, I didn’t connect at all with the writing.

    Posted 10.19.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Oh man. I actually didn’t mind the first chapter or the writing, but did grow bored after a little while.

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing is the perfect example of good, but not quite good enough. I knew intellectually that it was a very good book and I did really liked it, but still I wasn’t completely wowed. I knew that many people would not be able to connect with it and it was clear why.

    Posted 10.19.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Exactly! I wonder why it’s getting so many award nominations…

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  5. Dawn H wrote:

    I so appreciate your thoughts on Sing Unburied Sing. I felt the same way after reading it. The ghost story component did not work for me, and I can usually tolerate some magical realism. I did, however, love A Gentleman in Moscow. No plans to read Exit West.

    Posted 10.19.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      You’re welcome 🙂

      Lots of people loved Gentleman…just wasn’t for me. Partly because it’s the kind of book that begs to be read in peace and quiet and I have little kids so am always reading amid chaos.

      Interesting the ghost thing didn’t work for you even though magical realism doesn’t normally bother you…I generally always have trouble with MR, so interesting to hear someone who doesn’t still didn’t like it.

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  6. I’m thinking of reorganizing my reviews a bit, and I might steal some of your ideas like the separation by headers 🙂 I requested Sing Unburied Sing from Book Of The Month so we’ll see what I think. Great review!

    Posted 10.19.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Sounds great! I was so much happier writing reviews once I made that change. Of course now I’m tired of writing reviews again…

      Will be interested to hear your thoughts!

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  7. Michelle wrote:

    I think had she not introduced Richie’s character as a ghost, I would have been okay with the story. As you said, it is gut-wrenching and tough and beautifully written. But a ghost story within such a rich but dark story? It didn’t work for me either, and it makes me wonder how these critics who are raving about the novel are able to overlook that part of the story – because to me it loses its gravitas and strength the minute Richie enters the scene.

    The scene with the police though will forever stay with me.

    Posted 10.20.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Agreed! Seemed silly almost. Couldn’t Pop have just told Richie’s story to JoJo and communicated it to the reader that way if it’s truly critical to the story…which I’m still not convinced it was?

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  8. Madeline wrote:

    For me this is a great example of a hyped book that isn’t for me. And I love southern lit. (Bastard out of Carolina, All Over But the Shoutin’)

    Life is too short to read stuff that doesn’t resonate.

    Posted 10.20.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Yep – me too 🙂

      I LOVED All Over But the Shoutin’…and met Rick Bragg at BEA and he was exactly as you’d expect him to be! Still need to read Bastard….it’s been on my list for years.

      Posted 10.23.17 Reply
  9. Tammy wrote:

    The metaphors are overreaching for my literary taste. They’re a distraction, and many of the passages would’ve read better without them. I had the same reaction to Salvage the Bones: a shiny chrome bumper was described something like “it was shiny as a dime on a sidewalk at high noon during a drought in mid summer.”
    Just too much for me.

    Posted 1.1.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I’m with you. I’ve given her 2 tries now and I think I’m retiring 🙂

      Posted 1.1.18 Reply
  10. Ray Sinclair wrote:

    Richie the ghost worked well for me. The ghost device for a child who dies, particularly so brutally at the hands of racists, seems like a way to express the enormity of the loss of a young life — Richie died too young, and his ghost is a way of saying that — that his life should have gone on longer. (By the way, ditto for Given.) Another reason I liked Richie the ghost was how his voice was used along with Pop’s to tell the story of Parchman Farm. Ward used Richie to help tell the important story that a quiet man like Pop found so difficult to tell his beloved Jo-Jo. In her interview with PBS, Ward said that she was shocked when she learned that young black boys were at one time imprisoned at Parchman for minor offenses. She said that the ghost was her way of giving voice to those long-dead boys. So there’s the matter of historical accuracy as well.

    Posted 7.13.18 Reply

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