Suspenseful, cinematic, lushly detailed, and filled with almost mythically
colorful characters, Song Yet Sung demands a film adaptation from the
very first page. But if you wait for it to come to a theater near you, you'll
miss the easy music of James McBride's lyric styling. His third person narration
recalls a storyteller's tone, relishing the story and the telling of it, not
afraid to embellish a little to bring out the emotional undertone and engage the
audience. He draws the reader close, but his sweet prose softens the brutal
facts that shape the story, allowing the reader to wade into the terrible
history, instead of reeling away.
On one level, Song Yet Sung is an adventure tale of the antebellum American south, revolving around the complex nature of the relationships formed by the institution of slavery. But in McBride's sensitive and sympathetic handling of all of his characters, slave-catchers included, the story also reveals the many ways in which a person can be enslaved to an idea, to history, to another person, or to himself. As the lines of freedom blur, the real terror lies in the choices: to save or to abandon, to kill or be killed, to escape or to fight, to reveal or keep the secret, to dream or to give up.
I found Song Yet Sung such a good, old-fashioned read - dramatic plot, broad characters, redemptive themes - that I wanted it to be perfect. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few facile conclusions and implausible resolutions, and the central dream motif becomes heavy-handed as the novel progresses. Still, so engaging are its many merits that choosing to forgive its minor flaws offers the possibility of an up-all-night read that runs much deeper than the usual fare.
This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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