Thursday, January 09, 2020

Fiction Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward landed on almost every Best Books of 2017 list and also won the National Book Award for Fiction that year. My husband gave it to me as a gift the following year, and it sat on my TBR shelf--with many other acclaimed books--until I made time to read it in December, when I often try to catch up on books from my own shelves I have been meaning to get to. It was worth the wait, a compelling and powerful story about life and death, love and family.

Thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with and are mostly taken care of by their kind and loving Black grandparents, Pop and Mam, in a small house in rural Mississippi. Mam is very sick now and stays in bed, while Pop tries to take care of the small farm, the house, and the children. Jojo and Kayla's mom, Leonie, is Pop and Mam's daughter and also lives in the house--when she remembers to come home. Much of the time, in between working as a cocktail waitress in a rundown bar, she is high, often with her friend, Misty. Michael is Jojo and Kayla's White father, and he loves his kids, but he's in prison now. Leonie also had a brother named Given but he died in a horrible, violent way when he was just a teen, and now Leonie only sees him when she is high, which is both frightening and comforting to her. When she gets the news that Michael is being released early, Leonie packs the kids into the car along with her friend, Misty, and the four of them head north to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, which has a long and violent history. Pop himself spent some time there as a teen and tried to protect Richie, an even younger boy who took the brunt of abuse from older, violent criminals.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a deceptively simple story of a family, filled with layers of meaning, symbolism, and complexity. Chapters are alternatively narrated by Jojo, Leonie, and a few by Richie. It's a relatively quick and engaging read, with lyrical language that pulls you into the story and characters you quickly come to care about. Racism is woven into every thread of the story, in the violence that often befalls the Black males, the way Jojo is treated when he leaves the safety of Mam and Pop's house, and the rejection of Jojo and Kayla by their own White grandparents. The novel also contains threads of the supernatural. Besides Leonie's sightings of Given, there are symbols and visions as Mam approaches death, and a surprising extra passenger on the way home from the prison. While I don't always enjoy these kinds of magical realism stories, I was completely engrossed by this novel, cared for its characters, and was pained by their challenges. It is a very powerful tale of death, family, coming-of-age, and racism in the American South.

285 pages, Scribner

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Listen to a sample of the audio book here, read by multiple narrators, and/or download it from Audible.

You can purchase Sing, Unburied, Sing from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Or you can order Sing, Unburied, Sing from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I enjoyed this novel as well except for the magical realism parts, which I always have a tough time with.

    1. I hear ya, Helen! We're on the same page, so to speak :)