Tag Archives: Rutina Wesley

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (3/5)

9 Jan

This book rounded out my unintentional jail series. While none of the speakers in the book went to jail, Michael being released from prison was a major focus of the book so I think it should qualify. I think this is the last in my mini-series but we’ll see. My book club has a knack for prison books lately.

Cover image via Goodreads

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. There was something in it that just didn’t click with me. I’m not sure if it was the audio or the text. I liked the characters and I thought Leonie was especially well described. I think it was the elements of magical realism that were just a bit too much for me (similar to my complaints with The Mortifications). I liked the plot and the way Kayla, Jojo, and Leonie interacted, but when Jojo and Leonie started seeing people, I was a little too skeptical to be swept away. I did like the family unit that was picked apart in this book. Leonie was not the ideal daughter but in her mind, she was still a good mother like her mother had been to her. Having Jojo’s perspective and getting to see what he thought about his mother created good contrast.

Ward created very real characters. The ways she described the characters addicted to drugs was especially powerful. You felt bad for them, they couldn’t help their addictions. The faults in child-rearing and absenteeism were explained away and weren’t their fault. It helped you see how an addict can be out of control and how they don’t view themselves as at fault. Leonie is both sympathetic and culpable which makes the reader struggle with how to feel about her.

Jojo was my favorite character. He came off as much older than he was because of the rough environment he was brought up in and how he had to deal with having a mother who was absent so often. The way he spoke to Kayla was learned from his grandparents who taught him to be a man and a father much too young. Pop was put in a hard place when it came to Jojo and I think he did a great job raising him to be a smart and sensitive boy.

I didn’t relate well to any of the characters and I think that’s what kept me from enjoying the book more. I’m fortunate not to have any addicts in my life that I could compare with Leonie. I’ve never had someone close to me go to jail, either. I’m lucky not to have any severe racists in my family like Big Joseph. I’ve never seen ghosts. The only part that felt somewhat relatable was the long-distance feeling between Leonie and Michael. Their time apart reminded me a bit of when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were living in different states. The way you feel when you see someone you love after so long can’t be compared to many other emotions.

Jesmyn Ward
Image via The Guardian

Leonie’s story was my favorite which surprised me. I didn’t think I’d have a lot of sympathy for the drug-addicted mother but I did. I felt bad for her when she’d see her brother and felt guilty for loving Michael because of his relation to her brother’s killers. I liked how she tried to use her mother’s teachings to help Kayla when she was sick. I felt bad for her that she thought she needed to move drugs to pay for the gas to get her boyfriend from jail. She struck a sympathetic chord with me I didn’t expect and I really liked her in the end.

A lot of Leonie and Jojo’s stories involved the people they saw. The ghosts, you may say. I didn’t like it. I could deal with Leonie seeing her dead brother when she was high, but Jojo seeing his grandpa’s old friend was a bit too much for me. I didn’t like that getting his grandpa’s hard past to light was such a big moment for the book, I thought it took the focus too much away from Jojo and I wanted to focus on him more because he was such an interesting character.

The audiobook was narrated by three people: Rutina Wesley, Chris Chalk, Jr., and Kelvin Harrison. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t tell a difference between the two male narrators, so I can’t say much about their narrations. Wesley was very good. I wonder how much her reading affected my sympathy for Leonie. She gave great weight to Leonie’s voice and made her more sympathetic. She didn’t sound like the stereotypical drug addict. She was profound and philosophical, not things I would normally associate with someone in Leonie’s place. I wanted to hug her so badly!

The role of family in the character’s life was complicated. Pop was more of a father to Jojo than his biological father and his paternal grandfather wanted nothing to do with him. Michael and Leonie weren’t married but they were more important to each other than either of their blood relatives. Leonie’s inability to be a mother tore a rift in her family and Michael wasn’t sure how to fix it. By the end, I wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Writer’s Takeaway: There’s no denying that the writing in this book was incredible. I might not have liked all the elements Ward used in it, but the lyricism of her writing and the similies she wrote were amazing. I want my writing to feel as rich as this. You understood how the characters felt and the well of emotions they were struggling to keep bottled for the whole book. The anger and frustration in them were really well done.

I liked the writing, but not the story as much. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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