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Plot and Setting
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a novel that showcases the darkness and reality that poor rural black families used to and still face. It focusses on the relationships between Jojo, the son on the cusp of teenagehood, Michaela “Kayla”, his baby sister, Leonie, his mother and a drug addict and Pop and Mam, Jojo’s grandparents and main caretakers. These are tested when Jojo, Kayla and Leonie go on a road trip to meet Jojo’s white father, Michael, in prison. As Kayla falls ill, the trip gradually descends into one nauseating, nerve-wrecking and never-ending journey.
The darkness and the grittiness of life which people used to and still face is ever present in the backdrop of the story and is so raw and palpable that, even reading in the comfort of my own home, I can feel the desperation and barrenness of the landscape. I write more about this, and recreate the food from one of Jojo’s good memories, here.
But the powerful, evocative imagery is only part of why I like this story. The star of this novel is undoubtedly Jojo, who cares for his sister with a ferocity and protectiveness that is at once endearing and saddening. He’s more of a parent to Kayla than is Leonie, her mother. A large part of the novel focusses on Kayla’s illness and the differences in how Jojo and Leonie care for her. Yet, being a thirteen-year-old child, there is only so much that Jojo can do, and his age and helplessness shows when he doesn’t agree with Leonie’s cures for nausea: Instead of confronting Leonie directly, he has to resort to means such as getting Kayla to regurgitate whatever Leonie fed her.
Though the novel is narrated from multiple points-of-view, including Leonie’s and Richie’s, the one who spoke to me most was Jojo’s. Leonie’s narrative felt to me more hollow and hard to sympathise with; Richie’s was confusing and somewhat detracted from the story. It was sometimes difficult for me to follow the story as it jumped from the present to Richie and Pop’s history. Also, I thought the magical realism in the story fell flat: It just didn’t seem to fit the grittiness and the harsh reality the characters faced.
The Final Verdict
Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a pretty novel to read. But it’s a story that needs to be told and read at least once, because there’s something everyone can take away from it: be it a critique of Southern history in the States, or lessons that can only be learnt from the most toxic of environments. Whichever the case, this story will stay with you like “a bruise in the memory that hurts when (you) touch it”.