When presented with this work by Jesmyn Ward, I was not sure what to expect. A reading challenge if ever there was one, which requires the reader to leave their preconceived notions and happy thoughts at the door. The story depicts a black family’s struggle in rural Mississippi over a period of time. There are three main stories here, the first, a living teenage boy—Jojo—who is trying to make sense of his life and how he will grow into a man. He lacks a true father figure, though is grandfather does the best he can. Jojo is mixed-race, forcing him to be scorned by all for his lack of fitting in. Add to that, his white father is incarcerated and his paternal grandfather will have nothing to do with him. Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is a drug-addled mother who is not present, but trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. She is still quite selfish, but must put on a brave face to ensure her children see the best of her. When Leonie packs her children up to take them to the prison, she hopes and prays that Jojo’s father is ready to face the reality of what awaits him. It is here that the reader learns of the third perspective of the story, a long-ago dead teenager’s ghost tells of Mississippi in the past, where people of colour had even fewer rights than today. Together, the story tells of a bleak outlook and one that can only get better with much change in a world that has forgotten the whispered voices. Sobering in its concept, but not what I expected or really felt connecting to me as a reader. Let those who love literature and its associated award-winning authors flock to this one. I’ll let them laud and praise it for the reader still on the fence.
It is always a gamble to read a new author and even more of one when presented with them in a reading challenge. I am always up for something new and interesting, though I cannot admit that I always follow the current of reviewer sentiments. In this piece, I was left feeling as though I wanted more Jesmyn Ward does well and has touched on a number of key issues with present and past America, showing that the country is far from the greatness its current leader espouses. However, the novel, presented through the eyes of three characters, failed to resonate with me. There is a thorough and multi-faceted view of life through the eyes of Jojo, offering his teenage struggles and how rural Mississippi is not an easy place to come of age, but this is interestingly contrasted with the life that Richie lived, another of the narrators, who faced lynchings and other horrible acts in a past full of trouble. Ward pushes a third perspective, Leonie, upon the reader, to show the middle ground of a woman who struggled as a child and found herself on the wrong path in a life full of poor choices and dead-end opportunities. The ideas were great and at times I enjoyed the delivery, but I could not connect with much of anything within the narrative. Surely, some will love it and praise Ward as being worthy of more accolades. For me, I am happy to hand over the shovel and ask that someone bury this experience so as to stop the caterwauling.
Kudos, Madam Ward, for your attempt. You did not win me over, but I hope others see the glimmer of magic I did not.
This book fulfils the August 2019 requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons