“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

I heard many great things about this novel when it was published, but I wasn’t interested in reading it. If not for a bookclub I recently joined, I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book.


Contemporary; literary


September 2017

Goodreads summary:

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.  

Sing, Unburied, Sing

My thoughts: (some spoilers)

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a contemporary, literary novel about a family passing on its legacy, a boy learning to be a man, a woman accepting who she is and where she wants to be. It’s about these things and more. It is an interesting read that’s filled with a variety of themes and topics to sustain any bookclub discussion, but unfortunately, I didn’t like the story as much as everyone else did.

It wasn’t impactful to me or lasting in any way. The story began to fade from my mind as soon as I completed it and as I now try to grasp at details from the story, all I seem to catch are shreds of memories about it. It was a quick read and I was engrossed as I read because of the magical realism elements in it. However, these magical realism elements, which manifested as ghosts, were interesting when first introduced but became confusing as the story progressed, especially toward the end.

The writing flowed smoothly and was easy to read but didn’t stand out to me; however, many other reviewers admired it. I wasn’t much interested in the plot either, but I did find the characters interesting, especially the dynamics of their relationships. It’s heart wrenching to see how Leonie treats Jojo. I think the author intends for us readers to believe that Leonie doesn’t have a nurturing instinct toward her children, but I wonder if that was true of Leonie before she started using drugs. As I read, I got the impression that Leonie’s treated Jojo differently before she started to use, but I might be misremembering those sections. Maybe I’m wrong. I think Leonie sees the truth of who she is when she looks at Jojo and abuses him out of guilt.

Michael also interested me because of his influence on Leonie’s family. One could say he is the source of the family’s pain since his family is responsible for the death of their child and it’s Michael who introduced Leonie to drugs. However, later in the story we see that Michael has potential or is at least willing to attempt to live a better life and be a better father to his children, but the toxicity of the drugs and codependency in his relationship with Leonie easily swayed him otherwise.

Of all the characters, Kayla was the most interesting one to me because we do not hear much from her until the end. We can assume much from her body language and crying, but there’s no way to be certain about what she thinks and feels without hearing her voice them. I was really concerned for her on the roadtrip because she kept vomiting and I was afraid that she was somehow poisoned (maybe she ate something weird while Jojo wasn’t looking). Now, I assume that her being sick is a strong reaction to the presence of ghosts about her family or her interacting with ghosts… I don’t know, but I was curious about what’s going on in her head the entire time I read.

I love the strength in the relationship between Jojo and Pop and how it contrasts with Leonie’s relationship with her mother. It’s obvious that Pop is passing on his legacy and knowledge to Jojo while teaching him to be a man and Jojo is receptive to his lessons. However, the same is not true for Leonie and Mam, though Mam has tried to pass on her knowledge to Leonie. Again, we see here how Michael’s presence disrupts the family and almost stoppers its growth since it seems that it’s his presence that distracts Leonie.

I wish I liked this one as much as everyone else did, but it just wasn’t compelling to me. Because of that, I gave it an average rating.

Overall: ★★★☆☆

It was okay. It didn’t appeal to me, but I would recommend it because it is well-written and the characters are interesting.

It sort of reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. So if that’s a book you liked, then I’d recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing to you.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

I actually Bought a copy so I could read the book in time for the bookclub, but I wish I’d Borrowed it instead since it wasn’t a book I was interested in reading and, now that I’ve read it, it’s not one I love.

Quotes from the book:

“The dream of her was the glow of a spent fire on a cold night: warm and welcoming.”


18 thoughts on ““Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

  1. So nice to read this review as I felt fairly similar reading it! I could recognise why it wsa a good book but honestly the last few chapters just confused me ! 😛


  2. Shame this was not as impactful or lasting for you and that the magical realism got confusing. Pity the writing didn’t capture your attention either. It’s a shame you didn’t this as much as everyone else, but sounds fair enough. Great review!


  3. Great review! I was kind of on the fence about this book, but i found it for £0.99 in an amazon kindle deal, so i got it. Not my usual genre, but there’s something fascinating about it.


  4. I read Beloved as a book club read and I think I would only read this one if I had to, if my club selects it. It sounds interesting for discussion but not solo-read. The ghost element seems to have been a good idea that was unfortunately, poorly executed. Sorry to hear that it missed the mark for you.


    1. Yea, there’s lots of fodder for discussion in it. The magical realism elements didn’t work for me or for some of the book club members.
      It’s similar to Beloved, but is much easier to grasp than Morrison’s book (though I loved Beloved). Beloved just feels like a tighter story to this one. Sing Unburied Sing felt like it has some loose threads by the end.


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