Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Do you ever pick up a book and know you are reading it at the wrong time? 

I feel like that is every book I’ve held in 2021. After a huge romance binge at the end of 2020 (Hello Bridgerton family, I miss you but I am glad to be living in the real world again) I thought I would start January off with the books I couldn’t quite stomach in the previous year. 

Except nothing has really changed. Books about hard subjects are still hard. Give me more regency romance and happy endings, please! 

Which brings me to Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward won her second National Book Award for this Faulkneresq tale of a family struggling in the Jim Crow south. 

The writing is fantastic, the characters haunting but compelling, and the story feels real despite supernatural elements that left me often uncomfortable. 

On paper I don’t have many bad things to say about Ward’s work. Salvage the Bone remains on my TBR. Except I just couldn’t like Sing, Unburied, Sing. Reading it felt like work. It often felt more like homework to continue to understand the inequalities in America than just a story. 

I guess the works we read are not just a product of their time but also of the time we read them. 

I couldn’t bring myself to deeply care for Jojo and his young sister Kayla. I couldn’t find sympathy for Leonie even though she is product of her environment and deserving of grace. I couldn’t care about this Odyssey of a trip to pick up a father and lover from prison. At once I felt like I was reading a gripping emotional tale and completely separate from what was happening, and that wasn’t Ward’s fault. 

In the end this isn’t a great review. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a great book. It is an important work. It would make for great book club discussion and probably fits into a lot of readers yearly challenges. It just wasn’t for me this week. 

Often I think that readers, especially readers like us, who blog, tweet, instagram or tiktok, are harder on ourselves than we should be. We want to read the important books and the popular books. We also want to read the books we like that make us feel good, or let us have a good cry. We want to be transported and feel safe in the worlds we are exploring. 

Usually these wants are conflicting. The important books can’t always give us warm fuzzies. Fantasy that is really meaningful cannot always make us feel safe as we explore a new world. The buzziest new literary fiction has buzz for a reason, and it isn’t usually because it is a feel good tour of pizzerias in Italy. 

Sometimes it is okay to read for self preservation. Picking up our favorite novels and escaping into places that feel like home is just as important as reading about struggle and strife. 

This is all to say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is a fantastic novel. It is also a novel I have had 3 friends DNF in the last 2 weeks. All plan on revisiting when their mental health allows them more bandwidth, and that is okay.

One thought on “Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

  1. Such an honest and incisive perspective, I agree that some books are important to be part of the conversation, but they don’t always give readers what they might be yearning for.

    I had that last year when I read Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba just after reading Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village, one is literary and the second YA, Condé writes from a place of both anger, revenge and compassion, while Petry writes more from compassion and empathy. I recognised with Condé’s work, what part I was bringing to the reading and how she confronts that. Petry’s was a softer treatment and as the reader, that perspective was like a joyful fantasy, making the other less satisfying emotionally, but much more complex intellectually!

    The answer for me is discernment, knowing my state of mind and choosing according to that, rather than lists or expectations or trends. Knowing that with the years, that skill too improves.


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