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Sing, Unburied, Sing

A Novel
Written by: Jesmyn Ward
Length: 8 hrs and 22 mins
4 out of 5 stars (44 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD for FICTION
Finalist for the Kirkus Prize
Finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal
Publishers Weekly Top 10 of 2017 

"The heart of Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing is story - the yearning for a narrative to help us understand ourselves, the pain of the gaps we'll never fill, the truths that are failed by words and must be translated through ritual and song...Ward's writing throbs with life, grief, and love, and this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it." (Buzzfeed) 

In Jesmyn Ward's first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural 21st-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi's past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power - and limitations - of family bonds. 

Jojo is 13 years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn't lack in fathers to study, chief among them his black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent white father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent white grandfather, Big Joseph, who won't acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. 

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister's lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black, and her children's father is white. She wants to be a better mother but can't put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. 

When the children's father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another 13-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He, too, has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. 

Rich with Ward's distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story. 

 A 2018 RUSA “Listen-Alike” for LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

©2017 Jesmyn Ward (P)2017 Simon & Schuster Audio

What the critics say

"There is a truth and grittiness here that narrators Kelvin Harrison, Rutina Wesley, and Chris Chalk enhance significantly with their powerful talents.... All in all, this excellent novel makes for exceptional listening." (AudioFile)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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Too much

The narration was very tedious and drawn
out for Leoni’s voice - the overly descriptive phrases were just too much / the ending went on and on - the story went no where - glad I’m done

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Interesting

It was just an interesting story to listen to, or I missed the point. I loved the narrators!

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True Southern Gothicism

This story is told from several different viewpoints but the most resounding voice was a young boy named Jojo. A poverty stricken family living in Mississippi. It’s a powerful, beautiful, heartbreaking story that details love, hate, sadness, death, addiction, poverty, and racism. It’s beautifully written and haunting. The story was so powerful and it completely swept me away. This is one of those kinds of great works of literature that stays with you.
Jesmyn Ward is unbelievably talented and her books are a gift to the literary world.

#Audible1

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Not impressed.

The story would have seemed more realistic if the prose was not so flowery and unlike what would have been realistic of the time and circumstances of the characters. It read like one long poem, as if it was a Toni Morrison ripoff. Unfortunately there is only one Toni Morrison and it showed. I like to hear a heart wrenching and heart warming story, this only scratched the surface.
The readers were awesome, except when shrill outbursts made me jump when the reader was acting out the child Makayla’s voice.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • k teed
  • 2018-01-09

4.16 Stars

The book is really good at times, and it trails off in others. The ending (the last hour or so) is where it lost some steam for me, but some people I've discussed the book with loved the ending. I think it was supposed to be dramatic, but it didn't come off that way to me. Jesmyn Ward obviously has talent, and a lot of it. Salvage the Bones was a great read/listen and my favorite work by Ward. Overall, I would classify Sing, Unburied, Sing as good but not great.

The narrators handle this novel about as well as one can expect. I've noticed that other reviewers did not like Rutina Wesley's performance, but I thought she did a nice job. I've heard better books on Audible, and if I were to recommend a book to friend, it probably wouldn't be this one. Still, it was worth the time I spent on it. It's not long, and it kept my attention. I like it more looking back on it than I did while listening to it....it stays with you after you've finished it.

Overall rating: 4.16 stars

22 of 22 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Jacqueline Buckles
  • 2017-09-23

Very good read, but way too short

The story itself was wonderful, but it seems like it was too short and I still have many questions. Hopefully there will be a sequel to this book.

19 of 20 people found this review helpful

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  • Margaret
  • 2017-11-13

Lyric & sensual writing, devastating story

I would not have appreciated spoilers for this novel, and I've seen plenty in other reviews of Ward's book. So I'll keep it short. This has the lyric power and the historic and literary importance of Toni Morrison's Beloved, but unlike in Beloved, the reader knows what the hell is going on. The setting and themes are contemporary, but you will never look at rural drug abuse or the racist injustices of the Old South in the same way after living life in JoJo's skin. Ward is particularly powerful when describing sensory perceptions. She's won one National Book Award; with Sing, Unburied, Sing, she deserves a second.

33 of 37 people found this review helpful

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  • Mel
  • 2018-01-07

Gritty and Poetic


How can such pain and ugliness of the human condition cut its way into your head and leave you with an impression of something beautiful? Jesmyn Ward is a southern author that writes about the dark realities of racism, social injustice, poverty, and the rough lives in those fringes. Her writing is so poetic, so lyrical and powerful that it almost backs down the ugliness. She lights it up and shakes how you conceive such things -- it's upsetting, it's inspirational; it's that one pinpoint of light in the darkness. Books like this are hard to read without feeling a degree of discomfort. I feel her writing is reminiscent of Faulkner, Morrison, O'Connor, amazingly on par with the greats -- I thought so when I read Salvage the Bones when it was published, but wondered if this new author could sustain the level of writing. Her storytelling is brave and focused; her characters feel exposed and lean, and I think this is an author that will continue to give us incredible novels.

From the beginning, the story is a tragedy with little hope of good fortune. Jojo is a thirteen-year-old boy, conflicted more than the average 13 yr.old mixed-race teen being raised by his black mother's parents. His mother Leonie is an addict; his white father is in prison on drug charges -- he also killed Leonies' brother but wasn't charged. The white grandparents are more than bitter and refuse to have anything to do with their grandchildren. Leonie's parents have raised Jojo and his 3 yr.old sister Kayla, Leonie in and out of their lives as to her convenience. Kayla clings to Jojo, and this closeness is a glaring confirmation of Leonie's deficits as a mother. Any love or good in these children has come from the structure of the grandparents and their love, but the grandmother is slowly dying of cancer. The opening sequence of the book seems like a warning...the grandfather unceremoniously butchers a goat with Jojo looking on. It's bloody and blunt, an automatic ritual for survival. It hints at what is to come, a warning of sorts.

Michael is being released from prison and Leonie packs up the car with the kids and a friend. The day starts out on a hectic high point and takes a quick header into disaster. The feeling of the road trip is so clear it feels nightmarish and claustrophobic. Ward doesn't make it easy for the reader to pass judgments though. Leonie's has ghosts...conscience is only silent when she's high. When sober, she regrets her lifestyle, pains to see her little girl pull away from her and reach for Jojo, she even sees the spirit of her brother, murdered by her lover's own hands. Her children also have *the sight.* They see the spirit of a slave boy who tells them about the abuse of the past; they see their uncle and his disapproval of his sister Leonie's choices. This ability to see spirits adds a bit of magical realism and also some insight as to what Jojo learns about himself and his legacy.

The power of this book blew me away. Overall, this is a masterpiece, but it pummels your conscience...I wanted to take away a star just because it was so hard to read that it hurt.


20 of 23 people found this review helpful

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  • Justin
  • 2017-09-19

Very somber read

Jesmyn crafts a beautifully poetic story that puts you directly in her characters world. Although the only characters I was drawn to were Ma, and Pa. the story was intricate and was layered with complex issues which affected all the characters differently. I did find some parts of the story boring with really no forward momentum and I don't if that was because certain dialogue or certain events that unfolded. The biggest thing for me was the lack of growth/depth from Jojo. At no point in the story does it feel like he learns or discovers anything tangible; I just feel like he was uninteresting as a main. Overall the story was good.


9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Darcy Pennell
  • 2017-10-03

Interesting story with mostly good performances

I enjoyed the story and liked that it was told from different perspectives. The different takes on what was happening between JoJo and Leoni were thought provoking. I did not care for the performance for Leoni, though. The way the narrator were out her words was irritating. JoJo and Richie had great performances, though.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Devdac
  • 2018-01-13

Wonderful story, annoying narrator

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this story. Although I can’t say that I completely understood all of the symbolism it didn’t matter to me because the story was so good. The only downside to the overall performance was the style of the female narrator. I found the way she exaggerated her words to be incredibly annoying. This didn’t add to the story in any way for me. And in fact it took away from it. I will avoid this narrator like the plague since I prefer normal speech when listening to a book. Kudos to the author for another great book!!

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Deep River Dog
  • 2017-10-17

Beautiful, amazing story!

This is the best audio book I've listened to in a decade! Jesmyn Ward is a brilliant writer, her prose is beautiful and this story is deep and heartbreaking. Ward presents a story of the destructive impact of people who feel broken, yet manages to convey their humanity.
The narrators performances were fabulous!

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • cecile dixon
  • 2017-10-15

One fatal flaw

Rolling Rs and trilling Ing endings does not make one a great and dramatic reader. Retina Wesley's performance took away from this audio. Otherwise I would have given it an all over four stars.

13 of 16 people found this review helpful

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  • G. Cutter
  • 2018-03-21

Mixed Emotions

Rutina's narration was overly performed and distracting. The narrator for JoJo did an exceptional job! He should have narrated the entire book. I enjoyed the story of the living characters of the book, the ghosts - not so much. The story was short and the ending was underwhelming. These shortcomings tainted what could have been a great novel.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Louiesito De Leon
  • 2018-01-23

Épatant !

Je suis émerveillé par ce roman de l'Amérique profonde. La manière dont a mélangé Ward des fantômes avec des épreuves d'une famille afro - américaine est originale. J'adore les voix des characters, nues et crues.