This is my first ever book review for my blog, so bear with me. I have done little to no research on how to write a proper book review, and that might be a good thing? So I can find my own voice? Right?
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Last month I had Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward on my March Reading List and said I would get to it after finishing War and Peace. I’m still reading War and Peace, but I did finish Langston Hughes’ massive poetry collection. I started Sing, Unburied, Sing almost immediately and finished the book within three days.
One thing that jumped out to me about Ward’s book was the style. I’m currently writing my own novel that jumps back and forth between multiple characters in the first person. Sing, Unburied, Sing does the same thing, looking at the lives of a mixed family from Mississippi. The mother, Leonie, and the son, Jojo, take up most of the chapters.
Leonie struggles with raising Jojo and Kayla (her baby daughter) because she’s an addict and not the kind of mother who can love her children unconditionally. According to her own mother, Leonie only has eyes for her white husband who she needs to pick up from prison, leaving Jojo and Kayla to fend for themselves.
The next thing that immediately jumped out to me was the writing. Ward’s prose is beautiful and harsh and deep and personal in way that brings each character to life. The scary I realized while reading this novel was that the language and plot felt like the story was taking place during the ’60s when racial tensions were at an all time high; however it turned out that this was a very modern story, referencing video games and other obvious giveaways.
This just went on to show the reader without actually spelling it out for him/her that nothing has changed. Their car sucks, their living situation sucks, the family is struggling to enjoy the basic, first-world problems we love to complain about, and things aren’t getting any easier. Choosing to write the novel in a more natural, modern vernacular also goes on to make the story more personal.
Leonie, when she comes to the realization that she’s never going to be the mother her parents envisioned, then has to deal with the realization that her cancer-stricken mother is no longer going to be able to bail her out of life’s troubles. Throughout the story, Leonie wishes she paid more attention to her mother’s lessons on the spirits and their connection to nature, providing people with all the tools they need to heal themselves physically and mentally.
Overall, Sing, Unburied, Sing was a very quick read that really touched on a lot of key points using beautifully poetic language to connect and haunt the reader and characters. Everything felt in the moment in this novel. There was always a sense of urgency, of time running out, in each of the characters’ lives. Ward’s novel is by far and away worthy of all the attention and awards it’s receiving.
There were also a few quotes that jumped out to me that I’ll list for you guys:
1. “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
I love this because of its simplicity. These sentences are where I think Ward shines most. She just lays it out for the reader to take in. She clearly found the balance in her own work on when to give and take.
2. “Some days later, I understood what he was trying to say, that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.”
This is similar to the first one, but Ward is a little more metaphorical here; however, the difference between this and the first one is that learning how to work the current is connected to growing up. Jojo is the only one that learns how to do this. This, I think, is what Leonie’s mother says Leonie is incapable of doing, which extends the novel way past its ending.
3. “Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart.”
I think the trouble in all our lives comes from not being able to maintain our connection with the earth. The vernacular authenticates it. It feels like a true moment of realization about family and what it means, and how family is connected to home, and home is connected to earth, where we all live, making us all one giant family.
What Can I Take Away from Sing, Unburied, Sing?
There are a few things that Ward does that I want to try and emulate in my own writing. The first is the sense of urgency that’s always front and center in each storyline. I was constantly taught to write with a purpose. I want to write where it’s clear from the very beginning that I’m trying to tackle a significant issue.
The second is varying my sentence structure. I had a problem with sentence structure in grad school. I could never find a balance between long and short. It was either all long sentences, with commas in all the same places, or all short, Hemingway-style sentences. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, there was a great balance.
The third thing I want to emulate is using the vernacular. This was always an topic of discussion in my workshops because many of us are white, and we all write white characters using proper grammar. But we never knew how to find a balance between writing characters from different backgrounds and emulating that in our writing without coming off as stereotypical. I’m going to try to figure out a way to do this at some point.
Let’s Get a Discussion Going
How’d I do? What do you want to know more of? I know I talked a lot about Sing, Unburied, Sing’s plot without giving away too many details. Do you want to know more? What about my takeaways? In grad school, I had a workshop where we had to write quick responses to books we were assigned, and at the end, dedicate a paragraph to how we’d use the book in our own writing.
Do you find that useful? I know I do. With this being a writing blog, it makes sense to focus on the writing. Anyway, let me know what you think! I enjoyed this and I’ll try to do more of these whenever I finish certain books. I don’t know if I’ll do it for classics like War and Peace because those have all been talked about for years and years and years and years.