Book Review: "Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward

A novel that has had much praise heaped upon it, I picked this book up with high hopes that I was in for an exciting reading experience. All things considered, I was not entirely disappointed. In the tradition of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, this story concerns a deteriorating family through multiple lenses. On the one hand, there are metaphorical ghosts that haunt the story: economic oppression, racism, injustice, drug abuse, and communal alienation all working to keep the story's family down. But, there are also other, more literal, ghosts that appear to Leonie and her family. As she heads off on a road trip with her children and friend to be reunited with her boyfriend freshly out of jail, the reader observes the presence of ghosts of characters who inform the family mythology, one that is fraught with struggle and hurt.

The prose of the story, in my mind, oscillated between being quite poetic and then more straightforward. There are many passages worth highlighting, that make the heart leap. Yet the dialogue comes off as simple. Such an oscillation was a sore point for me. To commit either to a more abstract, poetic writing voice at large, or, to a more spartan, minimal narrative style, in my opinion, could have made the story that much more impactful. Like Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying", the chapter titles contain the name of the character who will narrate them. It didn't feel to me that, at any moment, the particular character narrating seemed to really matter. Whether it was JoJo, the son, or Leonie, the mother, or Richie, one of the ghosts, talking, the story seems to possess the same, uniform voice, which gave it a flat quality.

That being said, there is certainly some gorgeous writing to behold here. Whether it's descriptions of the bleak, desolate Mississippi landscape, or simply the emotive interactions between characters struggling to understand each other, there is certainly an undeniable haunting effect that this novel has on the reader. This is a story that views death and life, and the doorways between them, all at once, lucidly.