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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Compassion Fatigue

Because I sincerely believe in the importance of bearing witness, I loved what Jesmyn Ward tackled in her 2017 powerhouse Sing, Unburied, Sing. I also liked - a great deal - how she used her formidable gifts to craft the heartbreaking story. Her prose, especially the way she captured the Mississippi vernacular, her three first person narrators helping sculpt the architecture of the book, and her command of the narrative line were all first rate. I did not uniformly enjoy the actual experience of reading this novel. 

Explaining this disconnect is messy. Did my mood on one or more of the days I resumed reading have an impact? Perhaps. Was it ill timing to choose to read this book several weeks ago? Bad timing is always a possibility. My best guess today - following an intense discussion about Ward's latest novel with a reading soulmate - is an occupational hazard social workers call compassion fatigue. Admitting compassion fatigue might have occasionally pulled me out of the mastery of Sing, Unburied, Sing is uncomfortable and embarrassing. Denying compassion fatigue could have been a factor would be worse. Ward did her job as a novelist. No manipulation or sentimentality, real and flawed characters in believable situations, a crystalline sense of place and time.    

Would I recommend this book? Were I to line up all the people I've ever encountered in my life, I'd say "no" to the majority of them. Were I to line up all the discerning readers I've ever known, I'd say "yes" to the majority of them. But even then, I'd issue a mild warning to those same readers. If some of your recent reading diet has been informed - as mine has - by voices many of us, readers or otherwise, didn't hear much of as we grew up and were educated, be prepared. Compassion fatigue could play a role in how Sing, Unburied, Sing lands with you.      

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