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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview LIVE SHOW, DRINK INCLUDED – COLLECTED STORIES by Vicky Grut (@VickyGrut) @HollandParkPres) A diverse collection of beautifully observed and written stories #short-story

Hi all:

I don’t read many short-stories these days, but this collection is a must.

Live Show, Drink Included - Collected Stories by Vicky Grut
Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories by Vicky Grut

Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories by Vicky Grut

Fiction. Short Stories. For the stories in this collection Vicky Grut takes inspiration from a range of often ordinary situations and explores how easily things can go awry or take an unexpected turn. The stories veer from the realistic to the surreal, and nothing is quite what it seems.

To give you a flavour of what they are like here are a few snippets:

In “Rich,” two young people travelling towards Florence just after the Bologna bombing of 1980, decide to cadge a meal and a bed for the night from a girl they barely know. In the early hours of the morning, the atmosphere suddenly changes. They are in over their heads.

In “Mistaken,” an academic is mistaken for a shop assistant in a big London department store. When she reacts impulsively she finds herself in trouble. Help comes from an unlikely quarter–and for all the wrong reasons.

In “Into the Valley,” a woman tries to comfort her suffering mother-in-law on ward 19 in a small hospital in Wales. Underneath the ward sign it says, in English and in Welsh, “Bereavement Office / Swyddfa Profedigaeth.” There probably isn’t a ward 20.

Many of the stories have been shortlisted for awards and prizes over the years, including the Asham Award (twice) and the Narrative Magazine Contest in the US. Six of the stories were included in new writing collections from Serpents’ Tail, Pulp Editions, Duckworths, Granta, Picador and Bloomsbury, and two were published in the States by Harvard Review. The final story “Into the Valley” was included in the list of “Essays of Note in 2012” at the end of Cheryl Strayed’s edition of Best American Essays, 2013. Be prepared to not only be entertained but also taken by surprise when reading the fourteen mini-novels in this collection.

‘Some are dark and disturbing tales of lives viewed from under the mad end of a microscope, others are more of a glimpse of lives gone sideways.’ – Alexei Sayle

‘These delicious, dark, funny and affecting stories – reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor – remind us that life does not come with simple solutions and that often it is in the terrifying messiness that we are the most alive.’ – Tania Hershman

https://www.amazon.com/Live-Show-Drink-Included-Collected-ebook/dp/B07JK5HTQL/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Live-Show-Drink-Included-Collected-ebook/dp/B07JK5HTQL/

Author Vicky Grut
Author Vicky Grut

About the Author

Vicky Grut was born in South Africa and lived in Madagascar and Italy before moving to England in 1980 to study fine art at Goldsmiths. She has worked in community arts, for a small independent publisher, as a freelance editor, in the London office of the New Yorker magazine, as a creative writing tutor and a lecturer in several universities, including the London South Bank University and the University of Greenwich. Her first short story was published in 1994 in Metropolitan magazine and since then her work has appeared in new writing collections and literary magazines around the world, including collections published by Picador, Granta, Duckworth, Serpents’ Tail and Bloomsbury.

Vicky was twice a finalist for the Asham Award. “Into the Valley” was listed as a Notable Essays of 2012 in Best American Essays 2013. “In the Current Climate” won the Holland Park Press “I is Another” contest in 2015. Her novel-in-progress Human Geography was shortlisted for the 2017 Caledonia Novel Award.

https://vickygrut.com/home/

My review:

I received an ARC copy of the book from the publisher. This has in no way affected the content of my review.

This is a great collection of short stories. The author has a talent for being able to create a vivid background for her stories and she also gives us a good insight into who her characters are and what makes them tick. I am mostly a reader of novels, and I am aware that sometimes, even after reading a whole novel we still don’t have a clear sense of who these characters are, so this is a skill I particularly appreciate. The stories are beautifully observed; we get to see what is going on through the heads of the characters and also the situation that develops around them. The stories share a variety of moments and events in the lives of the characters, seemingly chosen randomly, ranging from tales of job difficulties, to family relationships, illnesses, and even the death of some of the characters.

I didn’t find any of the stories weak, and I enjoyed them all, although some of them might be better received depending on the mood of the reader and personal taste.

I’ll briefly comment each one:

In the Current Climate. A quietly menacing story that although somewhat surreal and taken to extremes seems very apt in today’s job market and big companies.

Debts. In appearance a vignette of everyday life rather than a complete story, it beautifully conveys how our state of mind can be reflected and amplified by everything around us: interfering neighbours, children’s tantrums, and even the weather. Mundane, wonderfully observed and beautiful.

Downsizing. After reading this story, I don’t think I’ll ever think of audits and management books in quite the same way. A great combination of realistic insight into the workings of modern companies and corporations and the whimsy and imagination of people that can never be totally subjugated.

Mistaken. Retail therapy with a difference. An articulate and high-achieving academic discovers that prejudice is still alive and well, sisterhood can have different meanings for different people, and some artworks can be prescient.

An Unplanned Event. The story of a man who never felt he belonged anywhere and finally gets to feel accepted and loved.

Escape Artist. A young woman ends up violently trapped at home and realises that she is also trapped in her relationship.

Live Show, Drink Included. What starts at a seemingly seedy and slightly menacing location turns up to be a beautiful love story full of light humour and some of my favourite lines.

“If you cut me open with a little knife there’d be a print of her right there in the middle of me” (Grut, 2018, p. 86).

A Minor Disorder. Two young men travelling in South Africa in the mid-1950s with very different attitudes to the situation are affected by the atmosphere around them in contrasting ways.

Saucers of Sweets. A story of life imitating art, especially recommended to people in the book publishing business, with some precious quotes.

“A book should be like a saucer of sweets, each chapter brightly wrapped and inviting in its own right” (Grut, 2018, p. 100).

Stranger. A lyrical observational vignette about an episode that feels oddly familiar and can be read in different ways.

Rich. This story contains the germ of a whole novel, full of fascinating characters (I loved Ashley), a compelling background and enlightening insights. It also has a great sense of time, place, and atmosphere. Its open ending can be discomforting to some readers, but I found it liberating.

There is a quote that particularly resonated with me:

“People equate emotion with weakness…” (Grut, 2018, p. 132).

Visitors. A vignette of small-town life in Wales, containing sharp observations about family relationships and motherly love.

On the Way to the Church. A possible life-changing revelation comes at the weirdest moment and explains many things.

Into the Valley. Having spent time in hospital with both of my parents in recent times, this story felt particularly touching and true to life. It records the last ten days in the life of a woman, spent in hospital, from the perspective of her daughter-in-law. The longest of the stories, it captures the feeling of numbness and routine that can take over one’s life in such circumstances.

“Night shift, day shift, back again to the night. We are far away from the world. We are in the Valley. Deep In” (Grut, 2018, p. 166-7).

There are characters with similar or the same names in different stories, and there are also typical corporate speech expressions which appear in separate stories, so as we read them we might find some similarities or links between the stories included, but as the end note explains, many of the stories have been published before, have received awards, and can, indeed, be read separately. I was impressed by the quality of the collection and this is an author I intend to keep a close eye on in the future.

Grut, V. (2018). Live show, drink included. Collected stories. London, UK: Holland Park Press.

Thanks to Holland Park Press and to the author for this wonderful book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview DAYS WITHOUT END by Sebastian Barry (@FaberBooks) A Western, a Civil War novel, and a love story whose narrator you won’t forget. #historicalfiction #Iamreading

Hi all:

Those of you who follow my blog will know I had been trying to catch up on some of the books that had made initially the long-list and later the short-list of the Man-Booker Prize. Now we have a winner, George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo. It is not one of the novels I read but it sounds very interesting. Congratulations to the author.

I realised that I had missed one of the books in the long-list that didn’t make it into the short-list, and as it had very good reviews, and for completion’s sake, I decided to read it. And yes, I loved it.

Days without End by Sebastian Barry
Days without End by Sebastian Barry

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

Winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year
Winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017
Winner of the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award 2017
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017

‘Pitch perfect, the outstanding novel of the Year.’ Observer

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

 

https://www.amazon.com/Days-Without-End-Sebastian-Barry-ebook/dp/B01FWPGBE6/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Days-Without-End-Sebastian-Barry-ebook/dp/B01FWPGBE6/

Editorial Reviews

Review

“A haunting archeology of youth . . . Barry introduces a narrator who speaks with an intoxicating blend of wit and wide-eyed awe, his unsettlingly lovely prose unspooling with an immigrant’s peculiar lilt and a proud boy’s humor. But in this country’s adolescence he also finds our essential human paradox, our heartbreak: that love and fear are equally ineradicable.”—Katy Simpson Smith, The New York Times Book Review

Days Without End is suffused with joy and good spirit . . . Through Barry, the frontiersman has a poet’s sense of language . . . If you underlined every sentence in Days Without End that has a rustic beauty to it, you’d end up with a mighty stripy book.”—Sarah Begley, Time

“Mr. Barry’s frontier saga is a vertiginous pile-up of inhumanity and stolen love: gore-soaked and romantic, murderous and musical . . . The rough-hewn yet hypnotic voice that Mr. Barry has fashioned carries the novel from the staccato chaos of battle to wistful hymns to youth . . . an absorbing story that sets the horrors of history against the consolations of hearth and home.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“Alternately brutal and folksy . . . Barry’s prose can take brilliant turns without sounding implausible coming out of Thomas’s mouth. A mordant vein of comedy runs through the book . . . the ‘wilderness of furious death’ his characters inhabit has a gut-punching credibility.”
—Michael Upchurch, The Washington Post

“A true leftfield wonder: Days Without End is a violent, superbly lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making, the most fascinating line-by-line first person narration I’ve come across in years.”—Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker Prize winning author of The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant

“Sebastian Barry had me in no uncertain terms from the first sentence and never let up. And he writes like there’s no tomorrow—like there are days without end. He navigates the terrain as a master of fictional conventions and sweeps us along in a big picaresque arc that is just the right vessel for his thematic necessities.” —David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars

“Powerful and unsettling, an important look at one of history’s most regrettable chapters.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A tour de force of style and atmosphere . . . Evocative of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, Days Without End is a timeless work of historical fiction.”—Booklist (Starred Review)

“A lively, richly detailed story . . . A pleasure for fans of Barry and his McNulty stories.” –Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

Incredible . . . poetic . . . Remarkable . . . A gorgeous book about love and guilt, and duty to family.”—Book Riot’s “All The Books!”

Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on. In its pages, Barry conjures a world in miniature, inward, quiet, sacred; and a world of spaces and borders so distant they can barely be imagined. Taken as a whole, his McNulty adventure is experimental, self-renewing, breathtakingly exciting. It is probably not ended yet.”—Alex Clark, Guardian

“A crowning achievement.”—Justine Jordan, The Guardian

“Barry writes with a gloomy gloriousness: everyone that crosses his pages is in mortal danger, but there’s an elegant beauty even in the most fraught moments.”—Library Journal

“Thomas’s first-person narration sings with wonder at the beauty of the world and their place in it . . . Sebastian Barry balances gruesome depictions of massacres, near-starvation and Civil War battles with poetic phrasing and exclamations of joy at the wonders of nature and the gift of life . . . painful and beautiful novel.”—Shelf Awareness

“A lyrical, violent, touching book that is a war story, and a surprising love story. . . Barry, the Irish author, presents his tale in language that recalls great American writers, from Walt Whitman to Stephen Crane to Cormac McCarthy . . . Barry’s lyrical prose is full of fire and tenderness, violence and compassion, providing a sweeping and intimate vision of America’s conquest and its continuing search for identity.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“An absorbing novel… By making all of his characters rounded, full-blooded human beings, [Barry] has accomplished that thing – inclusion, I think we call it now – that art, particularly fiction, does best…The writing is unflaggingly vital; sentence after sentence fragment leaps out with surprises.”—The Bay Area Reporter

“Some novels sing from the first line, with every word carrying the score to a searing climax, and Days Without End is such a book. It has the majestic inevitability of the best fiction, at once historical but also contemporary in its concerns … Days Without End is pitch-perfect, the outstanding novel of the year so far.”—Observer

“For its exhilarating use of language alone, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End stood out among the year’s novels. Epic in conception but comparatively brief in its extent, this brutal, beautiful book also features the year’s most beguiling narrator … A great American novel which happens to have been written by an Irishman.”—The Times Literary Supplement

“The novel comes close to being a modern masterpiece. Written in a style that is as delicate and economical as a spider’s web, it builds to a climax that is as brutally effective as a punch to the gut.”—The Times (UK)

“Remarkable … Life-affirming in the truest and best ways.”—Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail

“Epic, lyrical and constantly surprising … a rich and satisfying novel.”—Jeff Robson, Independent

“A beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence it grips and does not let go.”—Donal Ryan, author of The Spinning Heart, winner of the Guardian first book award

Author Sebastian Barry
Author Sebastian Barry

About the author:

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His plays include Boss Grady’s Boys (1988), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998) and The Pride of Parnell Street (2007). His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Annie Dunne (2002), A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008). He has won, among other awards, the Irish-America Fund Literary Award, the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, the London Critics Circle Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize. A Long Long Way, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin International Impac Prize, was the Dublin: One City One Book choice for 2007. The Secret Scripture won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Irish Book Awards for Best Novel and the Independent Booksellers Prize. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, Christopher Ewart-Biggs award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sebastian-Barry/e/B001HD0UCC/

My review:

Those of you who follow my blog will know I had been trying to catch up on some of the books that had made initially the long-list and later the short-list of the Man-Booker Prize. Now we have a winner, George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo. It is not one of the novels I read but it sounds very interesting. Congratulations to the author.

I realised that I had missed one of the books in the long-list that didn’t make it into the short-list, and as it had very good reviews, and for completion’s sake, I decided to read it. And yes, I loved it.

I had not read any books by Sebastian Barry before, and when I read some of the reviews of this book I realised that the author has been chronicling, in some of his novels, the story of two Irish families. One of the protagonists of this story, and its narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a descendant of one of these families. Rest assured that you don’t need to have read Barry’s other novels to enjoy this one (I didn’t find out about this until I had finished reading it) but now that I know I confess I’d like to see how they all relate to each other.

Thomas is a young boy who ends up in America fleeing the Irish famine and we follow him through his many adventures. Very early on he meets a slightly older boy, John Cole, and they are inseparable throughout the story, or almost. In XIX century America they live through many experiences: they take to the stage dressed as girls to entertain miners (who have no women around); when they are old enough they join the army and fight in the Indian Wars. They later go back to the stage, this time with Thomas playing the girl (a part he enjoys), John her suitor and an Indian girl they’ve adopted, Winona, as their side act. As times get harder, they go back to the army, this time fighting for the North in the Civil War. And… it goes on.

The book is narrated in the first person by Thomas, who has a very peculiar voice, full of expressions appropriate to the historical era, some Irish terms, colloquialisms, witty and humorous saying, poetic passages and amateur philosophical reflexions. In some ways it reminded me of novels narrated by tricksters or other adventurers (I’ve seen people mention Huckleberry Finn, although the characters and the plot are quite different and so is the language used), but although Thomas is somebody determined to survive and easy-going, he never wishes anybody harm and seems warm and kind-hearted, even if he sometimes ends up doing things he lives to regret. I know some readers don’t enjoy first-person narrations. Whilst it can put you right inside the skin of the character, it also makes it more difficult to get to know other characters and if you don’t like the way a character talks, well, that’s it. Although I really enjoyed Thomas and the use of language, I know it won’t be for everybody, so I recommend checking it out first. Some reviews say that he is too articulate, but although we don’t know all the details of the character’s background, he is clearly literate and corresponds and talks to people from all walks of life through the book (poets, actors, priests, the major and his wife). And he is clearly clever, quick, and a good observer.

Although the story is set in America in mid-XIX century and recounts a number of historical events, these are told from a very special perspective (this is not History with a capital H, but rather an account of what somebody who had to live through and endure situations he had no saying on felt about the events), and this is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a historical treatise. Yes, Thomas and John Cole love each other and have a relationship through the whole book and Thomas wears a dress often. There is little made of this and Thomas is better at talking about events and other people than at discussing his own feelings (and that, perhaps, makes the snippets he offers us all the more touching). Although perhaps the historical accuracy of some parts of the story (mostly about the characters’ relationship) stretches the imagination, the descriptions of the battles of the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and especially the way those involved in them felt, are powerful and evocative, horrible and heart-wrenching. There are no true heroes or villains, just people who play their parts as cogs in machines they don’t understand. (There are funny moments like when quite a racist character discovers that he’s fighting in the pro-abolition side. His reason for fighting is because the major he’d fought under in the Indian Wars asked him to. He never thought to ask what the war was about). Thomas reflects at times upon the similarities between what is happening there and what had happened in Ireland and does not miss the irony of the situation.

I had problems choosing some quotations from the book as I’d highlighted quite a lot of it, but here go:

If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay.

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.

The bottom was always falling out of something in America far as I could see.

Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.

Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that.

There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and at the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.

He is as dapper as a mackerel.

How we going to count all the souls to be lost in this war?

Men so sick they are dying of death. Strong men to start that are hard to kill.

Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul.

I loved the story and the characters and I hope to read more novels by Barry in the future. I recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and westerns, with a big pinch of salt, those who love narrators with a distinctive voice, and fans of Barry. From now on I count myself among them.

Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Thanks for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

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#Tuesdaybookblog #Bookreview Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (@jesmimi) (@ScribnerBooks) Magic realism in the heart of darkness. A must read.

Hi all:

Today I’m sharing the review of a book that is not yet available in the UK but I hope you’ll keep it in mind. I’m sorry for including so many editorials reviews, but it’s received a lot of attention in the US and I’m not surprised.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmnyn Ward

‘This wrenching new novel by Jesmyn Ward digs deep into the not-buried heart of the American nightmare. A must’ Margaret Atwood

‘A powerfully alive novel haunted by ghosts; a road trip where people can go but they can never leave; a visceral and intimate drama that plays out like a grand epic, Sing, Unburied, Sing is staggering’ Marlon James, Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

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 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 brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

https://www.amazon.com/Sing-Unburied-Jesmyn-Ward-ebook/dp/B071FK5CHS/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sing-Unburied-Jesmyn-Ward-ebook/dp/B071FK5CHS/

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of September 2017: A slamming, heartbreaker of a novel that is rendered with such stinging beauty and restrained emotion that despite the anguish taking place on the page, you won’t want it to end. For her third novel, National Book Award winning Jesmyn Ward, tells the story of Jojo, a young black Mississippi boy raised by his grandparents, who is forced to become a man far before he should because his mother is a drug addict, his father is in jail, and his baby sister needs a guardian. When Jojo’s dad is released from prison, Leonie packs Jojo and Kayla in the car, picks up her meth addled friend and drives north. What transpires is a nightmarish journey that weaves in and out of the present – Leonie’s meth induced highs, when she dreams of her dead brother who was killed by white hands decades ago, and the past — when a man named Ritchie served time alongside Jojo’s grandfather. Sing, Unburied, Sing shimmers with mythic southern memories to tell a story of the drugged and the damned and the fluttering promise of youth. –Al Woodworth

Review

“Ghosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing — a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (a place rich in oil rigs and atmosphere, if almost nothing else), the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward’s own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior … Ward, whose Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award, has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Grade: A.”
Entertainment Weekly

“However eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America.”
The New York Times

“Staggering … even more expansive and layered [than Salvage the Bones]. A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Ward’s novel hits full stride when Leonie takes her children and a friend and hits the road to pick up her children’s father, Michael, from prison. On a real and metaphorical road of secrets and sorrows, the story shifts narrators — from Jojo to Leonie to Richie, a doomed boy from his grandfather’s fractured past — as they crash into both the ghosts that stalk them, as well as the disquieting ways these characters haunt themselves.”
Boston Globe

Sing, Unburied, Sing is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.”
New York Times Book Review

“While the magical element is new in Ward’s fiction, her allusiveness, anchored in her interest in the politics of race, has been pointing in this direction all along. It takes a touch of the spiritual to speak across chasms of age, class, and color … The signal characteristic of Ward’s prose is its lyricism. “I’m a failed poet,” she has said. The length and music of Ward’s sentences owe much to her love of catalogues, extended similes, imagistic fragments, and emphasis by way of repetition … The effect, intensified by use of the present tense, can be hypnotic. Some chapters sound like fairy tales. This, and her ease with vernacular language, puts Ward in fellowship with such forebears as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner.”
The New Yorker

“[A] tour de force … Ward is an attentive and precise writer who dazzles with natural and supernatural observations and lyrical details … she continues telling stories we need to hear with rare clarity and power.”
O, the Oprah Magazine

“Gorgeous … Always clear-eyed, Ward knows history is a nightmare. But she insists all the same that we might yet awaken and sing.”
Chicago Tribune

“The novel is built around an arduous car trip: A black woman and her two children drive to a prison to pick up their white father. Ward cleverly uses that itinerant structure to move this family across the land while keeping them pressed together, hot and irritated. As soon as they leave the relative safety of their backwoods farm, the snares and temptations of the outside world crowd in, threatening to derail their trip or cast them into some fresh ordeal …. The plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, ‘The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.’ Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.”
Washington Post

“In this lush and lonely novel, Ward lets the dead sing. It’s a kind of burial.”
NPR

“Ward unearths layers of history in gorgeous textured language, ending with an unearthly chord.”
BBC

“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

“Jesmyn Ward’s new novel is like a modern Beloved, with the cruelty of the criminal justice system swapped in for the torments of slavery … Sing marks Ward as the sharpest voice in the contemporary conversation around the past’s relationship to the present … Sing is an expansive endeavor.”
Slate

“Very beautiful.”
—Vox

“Macabre and musical. [Ward] has a knack for capturing vivid details from contemporary poverty: skeletal houses covered in insulation paper, laborers on the prison farm ‘bent and scuttling along like hermit crabs.’ Her lyrical language elevates desperation into poetic reverie … a gripping and melodious indictment of modern racial injustices.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If William Faulkner mined the South for gothic, stream-of-consciousness tragedy, and Toni Morrison conjured magical realism from the corroding power of the region’s race hatred, then Ward is a worthy heir to both. This is not praise to be taken lightly. Ward has the command of language and the sense of place, the empathy and the imagination, to carve out her own place among the literary giants.”
The Dallas Morning News

“After winning the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, Ward is back, with an epic family saga, an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“In her first novel since the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward immerses the reader in a mesmerizing, cathartic family story … Ward’s spellbinding prose has a fervid physicality, teeming with the sights, smells, tastes and textures of her native Gulf town of DeLisle, Mississippi, rechristened here as Bois Sauvage. Her images pulse with stunning intensity, seeming to peer into the hidden nature of things, while laying bare the hearts of her characters. More powerful still is the seemingly boundless compassion that Ward demonstrates toward even the least lovable of her creations, expressed through lines that course with pain and love.”
Seattle Times

“Ms. Ward has mastered a lyrical and urgent blend of past and present here, conjuring the unrestful spirits of black men murdered by white men, and never shying away from the blatant brutality of white supremacy … Ms. Ward’s musical language is the stuff of formidable novelists, and never has it been more finely tuned.”
—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“As long as America has novelists such as Jesmyn Ward, it will not lose its soul. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” the story of a few days in the lives of a tumultuous Mississippi Gulf Coast family and the histories and ghosts that haunt it, is nothing short of magnificent. Combining stark circumstances with magical realism, it illuminates America’s love-hate tug between the races in a way that we seem incapable of doing anywhere else but in occasional blessed works of art.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[As] in everything she writes, Ward’s gorgeous evocation of the burden of history reminds me of Mississippi’s most famous writer, in a novel with more than a trace of As I Lay Dying … Always clear-eyed, Ward knows history is a nightmare.  But she insists all the same that we might yet awake and sing.”
—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal

“[Sing, Unburied, Sing has] a fresh, visceral resonance … [its] story of grief, racism and poverty isn’t only Mississippi’s story but our country’s. So, too, let us hope, is its story of resilience and grace.
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“This book is so good that after you read it, you will want to read it again.”
Sun Herald

“If you’ve already encountered Jesmyn Ward, you need know nothing more than that she has a new book out. If you haven’t, put Sing, Unburied, Sing at the top of your must-read list. [Ward’s] writing is page-turning. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, she puts the reader in the car, palpably rendering the oppressive heat, Kayla’s misery, Jojo’s anxiety, the crustiness of their clothing, their unquenchable thirst and the whole electrified atmosphere. Perhaps the most memorable book I’ve read this year, Sing, Unburied, Sing would be an outstanding book club choice.”
Inside Jersey

“[Jesmyn Ward is] one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country … Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Saunders’ recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a more direct antecedent.”
Albany Times Union

“Ward is a visceral writer, her sentences often hitting the reader like a slap across the face … Ward tells a sweeping tale about atonement and forgetting, shame and responsibility, and failure, sorrow, hatred and acceptance. She does not offer answers. And maybe there are none. But her vital novel shows that we must heed the singing of the past, and raise our voices to help those wounds to heal.”
—amNew York

“From the opening pages of Sing, Unburied, Sing, you know you’re in for a unique experience among the pecan trees and dusty roads of rural Mississippi. This intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South…Visitations from dead people, tales of snakes that turn into “scaly birds’ whose feathers allow recipients to fly—this material would have felt mannered in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ward skillfully weaves realistic and supernatural elements into a powerful narrative. The writing, though matter-of-fact in its depiction of prejudice, is poetic throughout…an important work from an astute observer of race relations in 21st-century America.”
BookPage

“No reason to delay this spell-bound verdict: With Sing, Unburied, Sing, her third novel, Jesmyn Ward becomes the standard-bearer for contemporary Southern fiction, its fullest, most forceful, most vibrant, and most electrifying voice … While Ward, born and raised in a small coastal community near Pass Christian, Mississippi, is operating within the contours of the Southern literary tradition—in the swampy lilt of her prose, in the scope of her concerns, in the way she entangles setting and character—she is also expanding it, heaving it forward, and revitalizing it in ways that no writer has done in more than a decade.”
Garden & Gun

“Ward tells the story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family in this astonishing novel … Their stories are deeply affecting, in no small part because of Ward’s brilliant writing and compassionate eye.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“In her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, Ward ambitiously fractures the extended family she portrays along race lines and moves her narrative from the tense realism of Southern rural poverty and prejudice to an African American-rooted magic realism … The narrative … sails through to an otherworldly, vividly rendered ending. Lyrical yet tough, Ward’s distilled language effectively captures the hard lives, fraught relationships, and spiritual depth of her characters.”
Library Journal, starred review

“In her first novel since the National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones (2011), Ward renders richly drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a distinctive style that is at once down-to-earth and magical.”
Booklist

“If Sing, Unburied, Sing is proof of anything, it’s that when it comes to spinning poetic tales of love and family, and the social metastasis that often takes place but goes unspoken of in marginalized communitieslet alone the black American SouthJesmyn Ward is, by far, the best doing it today. Another masterpiece.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Ghost

“The connection between the injustices of the past and the desperation of present are clearly drawn in Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book that charts the lines between the living and the dead, the loving and the broken. I am a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward’s work, and this book proves that she is one of the most important writers in America today.”
—Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a road novel turned on its head, and a family story with its feet to the fire. Lyric and devastating, Ward’s unforgettable characters straddle past and present in this spellbinding return to the rural Mississippi of her first book.  You’ll never read anything like it.”
—Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

“Read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and you’ll feel the immense weight of history—and the immense strength it takes to persevere in the face of it. This novel is a searing, urgent read for anyone who thinks the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow have passed, and anyone who assumes the ghosts of the past are easy to placate. It’s hard to imagine a more necessary book for this political era.”
—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

Author Jesmyn Ward
Author Jesmyn Ward

About the author:

Biography

Jesmyn Ward is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her novels, Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, are both set on the Mississippi coast where she grew up. Bloomsbury will publish her memoir about an epidemic of deaths of young black men in her community. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Alabama.

https://www.amazon.com/Jesmyn-Ward/e/B001JOW9NW/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Sometimes, I’d try to write them down, but they were just bad poems, limping down the page: Training a horse. The next line. Cut with the knees.

It stays with me, a bruise in the memory that hurts when I touch it.

I would throw up everything. All of it: food and bile and stomach and intestines and esophagus, organs all, bones and muscle, until all that was left was skin. And then maybe that could turn inside out, and I wouldn’t be nothing no more. Not this…

“Because we don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We are all here at once. My mama and daddy and they mamas and daddies.” Mam looks to the wall, closes her eyes. “My son.”

Both of us bow together as Richie goes darker and darker, until he’s a black hole in the middle of the yard, like he done sucked all the light and darkness over them miles, over them years, into him, until he’s burning black, and then he isn’t. There…

“Let’s go,” I say. Knowing that tree is there makes the skin on my back burn, like hundreds of ants are crawling up my spine, seeking tenderness between the bones to bit. I know the boy is there, watching, waving like grass in water.

I decided to start with some quotes (and I would happily quote the whole book, but there would be no point) because I know I could not make its language justice. This is a book about a family, three generations of an African-American family in the South and it has been compared to works by Morrison and Faulkner, and that was what made me request the book as they are among my favourite authors. And then, I kept reading about it and, well, in my opinion, they are not wrong. We have incredible descriptions of life in the South for this rural family (smells, touch, sound, sight, taste, and even the sixth sense too), we have a nightmarish road trip to a prison, with some detours, we have characters that we get to know intimately in their beauty and ugliness, and we have their story and that of many others whose lives have been touched by them.

There are two main narrators, Leonie, a young woman, mother of two children, whose life seems to be on a downward spiral. Her white partner is in prison for cooking Amphetamines, she does drugs as often as she can and lives with her parents, who look after her children, and seems to live denying her true nature and her feelings. Her son, Jojo, is a teenager who has become the main support of the family, looking after his kid sister, Michaela, or Kayla, helping his grandfather and grandmother, rebellious and more grown-up and responsible than his mother and father. Oh, and he hears and understands what animals say, and later on, can also see and communicate with ghosts. His grandmother is also a healer and knows things, although she is riddled with cancer, and his baby sister also seems to have the gift. The third narrator is one of the ghosts, Richie, who before he makes his physical (ghostly?) appearance has been the subject of a story Jojo’s grandfather has been telling him, without ever quite finishing it, seemingly waiting for the right moment to tell him what really happened. When we get to that point, the story is devastating, but so are most of the stories in the novel. Fathers who physically fight with their sons because they love an African-American woman, young men killed because it was not right that a black man win a bet, men imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and for being the wrong race… The stories pile up and even the ghosts fight with each other to try and gain a sense of self, to try to belong.

This is magic realism at its best. As I said, the descriptions of the characters, the locations, and the family relationships are compelling and detailed. But there are elements that break the boundaries of realism (yes, the ghosts, and the style of the narration, where we follow interrupted stories, stream of consciousness, and where the living and those who are not really there are given equal weight), and that might make the novel not suitable for everybody. As beautiful as the language is, it is also harsh and raw at times, and incredibly moving.

Although it is short and, for me at least, a page turner, this is not a light read and I’d recommend approaching it with caution if you are particularly sensitive to abuse, violence, drug use, or if you prefer your stories straight, with no otherworldly interferences. Otherwise, check a sample, and do yourselves a favour. Read it. I hadn’t read any of this author’s books before, but I’ll be on the lookout and I’ll try and catch up on her previous work. She is going places.

Thanks very much to NetGalley, Scribner and the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

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