I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Here it is:
Jesmyn Ward has established herself as one of the more important American authors of her generation. Having won the National Book Award for her debut novel, Salvage The Bones (a book I loved), she followed it up with a memoir, Men We Reap, and edited a collection of essays and poems, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, re-examining the questions James Baldwin had asked fifty years prior about race in America. There is no doubt that Ward has positioned herself as a profound commentator on issues of race in twenty-first century America.
With this track record, her second novel, Sing, Buried, Sing, comes with very high expectations and for the most part Ward meets them. A master of intertwining very intimate and personal experiences with broader questions, Ward gives another gut wrenching story that tackles issues of race, addiction, economic depravity and familial conflict and loss.
The story follows members of a black Mississippi family coming to terms both with the approaching death of the family matriarch (Mam), a drug addicted daughter (Leonie) and long dead son (Given), as well as the struggles of adolescent grandchildren (Jojo and Kayla) forced to come to terms with a painful family history and the consequences everyone still lives with.
Delving into issues of interracial relationships, racial tensions and violence, told through vivid and atmospheric prose (almost poetic), Ward delves deep into the pain that burdens the entire family as the passing of an elder forces them to address the injustice of their past losses.
Ward is the kind of writer who will always write a solid novel, so skillful and thoughtful when dealing with profound themes, giving us characters exuding with empathy, even when they are morally conflicted and damaged individuals. She is a master of the intimate revelation, allowing readers to feel compassion for her subjects but also deal with the broader thematic issues that cautiously lie just below the surface of the story-telling.
While Sing, Buried, Sing does all that, I did not find it quite as compelling as Salvage the Bones. While her first book takes place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, her newest book does not interact as obviously with such an historic event. This doesn’t take away from the high-quality writing, just maybe makes it a bit less powerful since the broadly known horrors of Katrina are not there to add emotional depth to the book.
At times, the writing also gets bogged down in its own attempts to sound beautiful, and I found this could be distracting. I get annoyed sometimes when writers show off their craft too obviously, and although Ward is certainly a master of hers it came off as too much at times.
Ward’s choice to tell the story from multiple also means that we lose some of the emotional connection for the characters we would have had it been told from just a single person. That said, Ward wants to reveal the complexity of a family unit coming undone, and to limit perspective would likely undermine this. However, in a book of such compact size (barely 300 pages) that comes with some drawbacks.
Nonetheless, Sing, Buried, Sing will still rightfully find much praise. It is longlisted for this year’s National Book Award and I have an inclination that it will be one of the novels looked closely at by the Pulitzer folks.