I haven't read Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward's earlier novel, though it's been on my to-read list since it first came out, so this was my first experI haven't read Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward's earlier novel, though it's been on my to-read list since it first came out, so this was my first experience with Ward's writing. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a novel both beautiful and terrible, heartbreaking yet optimistic, and grittily realistic while tinged with magical realism.
It's a family story but one where the history of race, poverty, and violence is close to the surface. Jojo lives with his grandparents, Pop and Mam, while his mother, Leonie, hovers around the edges. She is not the mothering type, even to her three-year-old daughter, Kayla, and is often gone-either at work or getting high. Her boyfriend, Michael, who is father both to Jojo and Kayla, is in prison and they have no contact with Michael's family, mainly because Michael's father, Big Joseph, is a raging racist.
The main plotline of the novel involves Leonie and her friend, Misty, taking Jojo and Kayla north to pick up Michael as he is released from prison. However, the bulk of the novel involves memories of the past-whether they are Pop's memories of his time in prison, Mam's memories of meeting Pop, Leonie's memories of losing her brother, Given, and taking up with Michael in the aftermath, or Jojo's memories of his mom's past negligence.
The chapters are alternately narrated by Jojo and Leonie, though about halfway through the story, we get chapters from the point of view of Richie, the ghost of a boy who died decades ago. He's a ghost that only Jojo can see, but when Leonie gets high, which is often, she sees the ghost of her brother, Given, killed by a white man.
A number of folks who took part in the Now Read This book club in January (this book was the first selection for the PBS News Hour sponsored book club) were dismayed at the character of Leonie. How could a mother be like this and still be sympathetic? I think what I found particularly masterful was how Ward put us in Leonie's head and helped make her addiction, negligence, and love for her children understandable and unsettling. She wants to be better, do better, but her addiction to drugs and to Michael keep getting in the way. Her love is as fierce as her anger and it stands in stark contrast to the steadiness and strength of Pop's love for his grandchildren.
This novel reminded me of the importance sometimes of simply listening to the characters tell their story and trying to see the world through their eyes, even if only for 285 pages. There's a lot going on in this novel-love, addiction, magic, ghosts, racial violence, and guilt-and I won't soon be forgetting anyone in it. ...more
This brief novel was my book club's choice for January and though we all appreciated the emotional arc of the story, we felt like something must haveThis brief novel was my book club's choice for January and though we all appreciated the emotional arc of the story, we felt like something must have been lost in translation. The blurbs on the back cover of the paperback copy I interlibrary-loaned are full of glowing descriptions like "unforgettable" and "it will haunt you forever" and "written with crystalline simplicity, intense passion and lively, stirring humanity." I kept wondering, "Did they read the same book as me?"
The bones of the story are interesting-in the modern day, a touring musician plays a concert with the Krakow orchestra and hears a woman playing a violin with an amazing tone. When the musician asks the woman, Regina, about the violin, he learns that it was made by her uncle, Daniel, and it's a priceless family heirloom with a heartbreaking story.
The novel then shifts to World War II and we are at Auschwitz with Regina's Uncle Daniel, who before the war had been a violin maker, but now is simply fighting to survive. When he entered the camp, Daniel had told the guards his profession was "cabinet maker" and this skill gains him entry into the Commander's house, initially to build a greenhouse but then, almost by chance, to repair a violin.
It is not a surprise that Daniel is eventually asked to make a violin for the Commander, but what is surprising is that this project becomes a cruel contest. The commander has made some sort of wager with the camp doctor (think the kind of doctor who does experiments on Jewish prisoners), but Daniel doesn't know the specifics-only that it is his life on the line. I won't give away what happens next, only to say that the novel jumps back to the present day and we find out Daniel's fate in retrospect.
The details about violin making are fascinating and the descriptions of life in Auschwitz are, as you might imagine, horrifying. However, as a reader, I felt a bit confused and frustrated by what the narrator/writer chose to show and not show of Daniel's story and the way the novel began with one frame/character but ended with another. The message of the story comes through loud and clear, like the notes of a violin, but I kept wishing there had been more meat on these bones. ...more