Obama found the time to read Sing, Unburied, Sing* during his presidency, which means you can too. Time published Obama’s top-ten reading list for 2017, and Jesmyn Ward’s novel made the cut. I can understand why.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intense depiction of a dysfunctional three-generation family. They’re hampered by drugs, death, poverty, racism, and a lack of self-love. There is not a breath of fresh air in this story; it’s clear that Ward has a need to convey the brokenness of the family with a dire sense of urgency that trumps the reader’s need to pause and relax. I got through the novel quickly, partially because the writing is poetically compelling and partially because I needed closure on the entirety of this family’s struggles. Whew.
Alongside the intensity is a downright spookiness. The novel has ghosts, and the spirit world has a say. They are loud and proud, contributing to the mood/dialogue/thoughts of the living characters. In this way, Sing, Unburied, Sing strikes me as a much more polished Beloved. Beloved, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, also deals with the dead but more haphazardly. As I mention in my review, I wasn’t always sure who was speaking in Morrison's piece. Sing, Unburied, Sing effectively jumps between points of view and those transitions are clear. In fact, each chapter states whose perspective will be narrating in giant letters that you can’t miss. Having multiple narrators helps me understand the family’s plight in a more well-rounded way. I will say that I’m disappointed we didn’t get to hear from Michael, the imprisoned white father.
Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award—a prestigious award that Jesmyn Ward also won six years prior for her novel Salvage the Bones. Is Jesmyn Ward crushing it? Yes. You can read my review of another National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin here, which also contains links to reviews of several National Book Award finalists. National Book Award National Book Award blah blah blah.
Lastly, what impresses me so much about this novel isn’t the heart-wrenching story, but the powerful execution of simile and metaphor. I’ve been annoyed in the past by authors (ahem, Murakami) who sometimes use analogy in an awkward, unhelpful way. As if they’ve heard that throwing a metaphor in the mix will make you sound smarter. Obviously, it has the opposite effect of making you sound like a donk. Jesmyn Ward is no donk. Her novel is packed with similes and each one contributes to the text in a meaningful way. Sing, Unburied, Sing receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.
*Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York: Scribner, 2017. Print.