PattyMacDotComma's Reviews > Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
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it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction-adult, arc-netgalley-read, fantasy-folk-fairy-super, kindle, calibre, politics-culture-social
Recommended for: fans of southern literary fiction

5★ (in spite of my gripe below)

“. . . the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other’s light.”

A haunting story, beautifully written. The unburied have been strung up in the trees or left in the fields for the dogs. For whatever reason, they are still with us, and some people have the gift (or curse) of seeing and/or hearing them.

We do meet other ghosts, some of whom have died unexpectedly and aren’t yet resigned to their fate. But just because they are dead, doesn't mean they are silent.

There is a lot of actual singing by various characters, as well as the sounds or ‘singing’ of ghosts. Thirteen-year-old Jojo continually sings nursery rhymes to Kayla, his three-year-old sister, all the time to distract her from the scary things and foul language around them, while he keeps an alert, wary ear open for threats. He adores her, and she clings to him for protection from their self-absorbed, drug-addicted parents.

‘Jojo,’ she says, and pats my cheeks, my nose. Pulls open my eyelids. I jump and wake and fall off the sofa, and Kayla laughs, bright and yellow and shiny as a puppy that just got the knack of running without tripping over her own legs.”

She is fairer than he is, with blue eyes and blonde curls. He’s darker, like his granddad River (Pop). Their white father, Michael, is in Parchman, a jail a few hours’ drive from where they live with their black mother, Leonie, and her parents in fairly primitive circumstances in Mississippi.

Neither Leonie nor Michael is inherently bad, just selfishly obsessed with drugs and each other, and needing to get high to escape their problems. They’ve been sweethearts since school, Leonie says,

“. . . because from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.”

Jojo and Kayla live in the caring embrace of Leonie's parents, Pop and Mam (who’s dying of cancer in her bed now). And an embrace it is. In this story, people are constantly hugging, burrowing, smooshing their faces into shoulders, curling up into each other for comfort. [I did feel like I needed to come up for air a few times!] Jojo describes Leonie and Michael on the front porch after a fight.

“They were so close to each other, their hips and chests and faces, that they were one, scuttling, clumsy like a hermit crab over sand.”

Jojo sounds surprisingly poetic for a 13-year-old, backwoods kid. In fact, that’s my only real gripe. When stories are told in the first person, the language should be believable. A child should think and relate in a child’s language.

“The floors are uneven. They are highest in the middle of each room in the naked house, and then slope down to the four shadow-sheathed corners.”

I love the phrase “shadow-sheathed” but I don’t believe for a second that Jojo would know those words, let alone use them. Later, listening to someone’s music, he thinks:

“The music, all violins and cellos, swells in the room, then recedes, like the water out in the Gulf before a big storm.”

Again, lovely, but not the language of a boy like Jojo. [ I can think of only one guy I’ve ever known who might conceivably have used that language at thirteen, and he grew up to be a prize-winning author, but that’s another story.]

Leonie and Jojo alternate chapters (along with another boy later), and we do learn why Leonie is such a mess. While bow-hunting with white men (who had guns), her beloved brother, Given, was shot and "accidentally" killed by Michael’s cousin. Leonie and her parents have never recovered from the loss, and unbeknownst to anyone else, Leonie sees him (but can’t hear him), when she’s high.

I will quote the publisher’s (and Goodreads’) blurb, which summarises the story, in case you haven’t read it.

“Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

We meet Jojo on his 13th birthday, when Pop takes him along (now that he’s becoming a man) to slaughter and dress a goat for the birthday dinner. They are subsistence farmers, and this is just a normal part of life. Pop seems to be a kindly soul who keeps his livestock hidden in the woods and has a special connection with animals. Another person says of him later:

“River held out his hands to the dogs like he was a reverend and they were his church. They were quiet with listening, but he didn’t say anything. Something about the way they froze together in the blue dawn was worshipful.”

The goat scene is a bit much for young Jojo, and Pop says gently that Jojo had best get back to the house to see if his little sister was up yet. When Leonie finally shows up later in the day with a poor excuse for a cake (a baby shower cake with booties!), Jojo is understandably disappointed.

Leonie is annoyed that the kids are calling her by her first name (because she’s hardly a mother), and she’s jealous of their closeness. When she drags them to Parchman to collect Michael, she ignores their hunger and thirst, focussed only on herself and drugs.

She sees Given (the ghost, whom she calls ’Given-not-Given’) when she’s high. She loves seeing him – it frightens her, but she keeps getting high because she misses him. She remembers that one day, when they were young, her mother had scolded him for forgetting to take off his muddy boots before coming inside.

Your brother can’t even hear what I tell him, never mind what the world sings. But you might. If you start hearing things, you tell me,’ she said.”

Mama (Mam) first referred to the ability to hear the singing, then stopped herself.

“Mama put her hand over her mouth like she’d told me something she shouldn’t have, like she could cup her words and scoop them back inside, back down her throat to sink to nothing in her stomach.”

. . . ’You might have it,’ Mama said. ’Really?’ I asked. ’I think it runs in the blood, like silt in river water. Builds up in bends and turns, over sunk trees.’ She waved her fingers. ‘Rises up over the water in generations. My mama ain’t have it, but heard her talk one time that her sister, Tante Rosalie, did. That it skips from sister to child to cousin. To be seen. And used. Usually come around full blown when you bleed for the first time.’


Mam was also a healer and local medical consultant, but Leonie never paid enough attention, and now that Mam is dying, she realises how much knowledge is dying with her.

Running alongside and around this story is Pop’s story. He’s having a bad time of it, with his beloved Philomena at death’s door and his daughter threatening to take his grandchildren away. He talks to Jojo often about how bad Parchman was when he served time there, when he tried to protect a very young prisoner from the shocking abuse that was commonplace.

Jojo is beginning to have his own thoughts about the singing of ghosts, and he pressures his grandfather to tell him more. Under pressure, Pop describes the terrifying ordeals of black prisoners, who were treated as runaway slaves were - whipped, hunted by dogs, lynched, and left to die.

It’s uncomfortable - no, it's horrifying - to think that so much hasn’t changed in 200 years and that black lives still don’t matter in many places in America's rural south. No wonder people are arguing today about statues celebrating leaders who were fighting to retain slavery.

Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner / Simon and Schuster for the review copy from which I’ve taken the liberty of quoting, so quotes may have changed on publication.
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Reading Progress

July 25, 2017 – Shelved
August 29, 2017 – Started Reading
September 2, 2017 –
84.0% "Lyrical and evocative and haunting and all of those things, but some of the language seems too literary for the characters to be thinking these words and phrases in the first person. I'm sure they feel things this way, but I don't think they'd articulate them like this. But I'm not done yet!"
September 3, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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Angela M I'm glad it was 5 stars for you too , Patty in spite of your gripe . Great review and powerful story.


message 2: by Brina (new)

Brina Wow. I have a lot on my plate and will add it to next year's list.


Diane S ☔ Fantastic Patty and yeah for your rating.


PattyMacDotComma Angela M wrote: "I'm glad it was 5 stars for you too , Patty in spite of your gripe . Great review and powerful story."

Thanks, Angela - I couldn't even bring myself to dock it half a star for my complaint.


PattyMacDotComma Brina wrote: "Wow. I have a lot on my plate and will add it to next year's list."

Do, by all means, Brina!


PattyMacDotComma Diane S ☔ wrote: "Fantastic Patty and yeah for your rating."

Thanks - I know you're a lot more restrictive with your 5 stars than I am, but we're certainly agreed on this one, Diane!


Erin Glover This is one of my favorite novels of 2017.


PattyMacDotComma Erin wrote: "This is one of my favorite novels of 2017."

It is a worthy one for that list, Erin!


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