Sing, Unburied, Sing
  • March 22, 2018


  • Jesmyn Ward

    1Sing, Unburied, Sing

    Min Jin Lee

  • Judged by

    Lauren Cohen


Here we find the two books I predicted would battle it out in the championship. Having already read both novels, I was well aware of how much they were each loved by readers and critics alike. I originally picked up Pachinko for a cross-country flight within days of its release, before the buzz spread near and far. I was immediately and absolutely swept away by this beautiful family saga centering on Korean immigrants settling in Japan across the 20th century.

ToB 2018 Reader Judge Lauren Cohen lives in her reading chair in a Boston apartment. She met most of her friends and her boyfriend in book clubs, and if you ask her how many book clubs she’s in, she’ll plead the fifth. When not in her reading chair, she works in cancer research at Massachusetts General Hospital. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Returning to it a year later, I was surprised at how much of the action I recalled perfectly, considering how jam-packed it was. This was a book for the senses, so revisiting them brought me right back. I could still recall the boarding house in Yeongdo, the Nampo-dong open-air market, and the family home in Osaka as clearly as places I’d spent time myself. I remembered the chapters where I sank into the lush details and the chapters where I moved swiftly from one decade to the next. Tragedies continued to arrive and the characters continued to move on. Perseverance wasn’t a virtue but an essential for survival.

How did I know how to keep my family safe? It’s my job to know what others don’t. How did you know to make kimchi and sell it on a street corner to earn money? You knew because you wanted to live. I want to live, too, and if I want to live, I have to know things others don’t.

I was eager to sink deeper into the characters this time around. I delighted in rediscovering the thread of paternal love, not as impactful in the first read. Main character Sunja runs her family’s boarding house, as her late father Hoonie did before her. When she is unwed and pregnant, her dark future brightens when a visiting gentleman, Baek Isak, marries her and claims the child as his own. Isak shares that he sought out the boarding house because of his own brother’s stories of staying there years before and never being able to forget the kindness and quiet charisma of Hoonie. The impact of Hoonie ripples through the entirety of the book, displayed in Sunja’s affection toward her sons and unquestioning bond with her in-laws. In a story where it is mainly the mothers hustling and taking care of the families, this provided an intriguing balance and a beautiful reminder of how we carry the love we knew.

Despite spending time with them again, I found myself wishing that many of the characters were fleshed out a bit more. It wasn’t easy to see them clearly, despite spending two 500-page readings with them. Perhaps this was the intent. Going through their stories felt like sorting through my own family history. While I have an idea of the experiences of those who came before me, I’m not always able to picture it clearly. The characters are adrift, constantly moving towards an imagined future.

“Sometimes, I’d like to see my home again,” Kim said quietly.

“For people like us, home doesn’t exist.” Hansu took out a cigarette, and Kim rushed to light it.

Although Pachinko contains a string of tragedies, I remained somewhat removed from the horrors of each experience. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, the story zooms in on the daily experience of being a child living in extreme poverty, where stability is hard to come by. Here I was also introduced to multiple generations of a family, but the focus remains on a more specific place and time. The short road trip that the main characters Leonie (the mother) and Jojo (the son) embark on along with younger daughter Kayla builds a sense of dread and disgust so astutely, I felt car sick just reading it. I was quite impressed by the overwhelming discomfort this brought me; it’s not easy to be that influenced. Sing, Unburied, Sing nails this unpleasant atmosphere.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

The second reading allowed me to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the ghosts’ subplot, which initially felt muddled—their sudden appearances didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. I enjoyed the ominous addition now that I was familiar with each ghost’s story and what they meant to the main characters.

I was hoping to deepen my knowledge of the main characters as well, but instead I found it difficult to decipher between the voices of Leonie and Jojo, two very different perspectives. I appreciated that we went into Leonie’s head and had the opportunity to learn about her motivations and how she sees her own situation, but her voice didn’t feel fully hers. The writing style, so sharp and beautiful, was not adjusted to the character in the way I would have liked to see.

There is a paternal thread in Sing as well. Pop is the only light seen through Jojo’s eyes. While everyone’s decisions on what is acceptable for this child’s life are questionable at best, it is Pop who keeps their life afloat. He leaves a small gift of comfort for Jojo to find during the trip, and as a reader I clung to and celebrated this sliver of comfort in the midst of chaos.

The only animal I saw in front of me was Pop, Pop with his straight shoulders and his tall back, his pleading eyes the only thing that spoke to me in that moment and told me what he said without words: I love you, boy. I love you.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is tight and triumphant. With many novels starting with one goal and the finished product ending up somewhere else, this has tremendous clarity of purpose and doesn’t deviate from that.

Pachinko was far more ambitious, perhaps too ambitious. There is so much crammed into the novel that no matter the reader, it’s easy to find faults and places where the plot stumbled. I could certainly list some inconsistencies I found, but there was so much beauty, humor, and love that it was easy to look past that. A reader’s cup truly runneth over when taking it all in.

I am left to judge based on what I found most valuable, and what I carried with me after reading each novel the first time, and then again. Sing, Unburied, Sing gave me a gripping and thought-provoking reading experience. When I think of this novel, I will remember Ward’s talent that brought me deep into an emotional setting. When I think of Pachinko, I will think of an entire world that I knew nothing of before. When I visit the story in my memory, I will remember the love between characters, the detailed descriptions of food, the ramshackle homes, and the sense that something better could always be around the corner. I will carry this one with me for a long time.


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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: This is an example of what happens when a person (let’s call him “Me”) inserts himself into the seeding process before he’s read either of these novels. As Judge Cohen points out, this is not a matchup you would expect to see in the quarterfinals.

John Warner: It seems unfair, doesn’t it? Of course the Tournament is designed to be unfair. I feel like this is one of the purposes of the Zombie Round. We inject an inherently unfair process—resurrecting a vanquished competitor—in order to potentially make up for an earlier act of unfairness.

Kevin: Perfect: the Zombie Round as make-up foul.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is an interesting companion read to another ToB competitor from a few years ago: Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Both are African-American family stories, one urban and one rural, both shortlisted for the National Book Award, with ghosts at the center. If anyone wants to take that up for a Freshman Sem paper, you’re welcome.

John: I think you could mix in some Toni Morrison and you’re on your way to a master’s thesis. I would not make a direct comparison between Ward and Morrison, but the unsparing harshness of the world of Sing, Unburied, Sing is reminiscent of Morrison’s world view, and both this novel and her previous Salvage the Bones have mythic elements that invoke Morrison’s work. The stories sometimes seem bigger than the characters, as though the intention is to crack the whole world open and show it to us through these finely drawn moments.

In a way, I found this sensation a little distancing, or alienating. When I’m admiring the vision and ferocity of a writer and book, the experience is less captivating than when I just sort of slide into the novel and forget about the fact that I’m reading it. I couldn’t quite achieve that forgetting with Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Kevin: There’s a fair amount of inherent risk for a writer taking on a novel like Sing, Unburied, Sing. Certain kinds of novelists always seem to be thinking of the reader. I’m not sure Ward’s one of them. I don’t mean to imply this book is difficult, rather that her writing seems answerable only to her vision, as you say. Judge Cohen says Pachinko is far more ambitious, but Pachinko is also the easier novel to digest. Ward seems to have had a keen idea of the kind of book she needed to write, and the kind of impression she needed it to make, and it felt deeply personal to me.

I really enjoyed that, for all its grimness.

John: Pachinko has been on my to-read list for over a year now. I hope to get to it before the end of the tourney because it looks like a championship contender to me.

Kevin: I enjoyed both of these novels, but I said in the opening round that I had fallen in love with Pachinko, and so I have to follow my heart to the end this year. Ward is very deserving of the NBA, though. She’s a magical writer.

Time to sift through the paper ballots on my desk to see if we need to update the Zombies and, in fact, we do! Sing, Unburied, Sing has the votes to overtake Stephen Florida in our rankings. If the Zombie Round were held today, Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo would be our bibliophagous bogeymen.

Tomorrow we will close out the quarterfinals, appropriately, with a pair of novels that deal with departures of sorts, as Exit West takes on Goodbye, Vitamin. Journalist and author Bryan Mealer will have to decide which one is leaving for real—and we have a surprise in store for you here in the commentary booth.

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