To read Jesmyn Ward is to be carried by her epic, transformative language to the dark heart of the American South and, once there, to be surprised by the stark beauty of the region’s people. Let Us Descend, the Mississippi author’s fourth novel, brings Ward’s intimate knowledge of place to the pre-Civil War South, where her captivating narrator, teenage girl Annis, is enslaved. A two-time National Book Award winner (2011’s Salvage the Bones and 2017’s Sing, Unburied, Sing), Ward writes in the traditions of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison—but this story is unmistakably her own.
The journey begins at a North Carolina rice plantation owned by the enslaver who fathered Annis through rape. In a shady clearing in the woods, Annis’ mother teaches her to fight, yet their relationship is one of intense tenderness. When the enslaver sells Annis’ mother, our heroine is left grief-wracked. Before long, she too is sold downriver on a harrowing march to the slave markets of New Orleans. In North Carolina, she eavesdropped on her white half-sisters’ lessons about Dante’s Divine Comedy. Now, Annis recognizes her own descent through the circles of hell.
Let Us Descend is infused with the supernatural. Spirits approach Annis on her journey, offering protection and oblivion. Astute and intuitive, Annis steels herself against temptation, grounding herself in memories of her mother. The theme of mothering extends to the care Annis offers to and receives from the girls and women around her, which allows the characters to maintain their dignity and assert their humanity. These interactions are a balm not only to Annis but also to the reader. Ward constantly reminds us that oppressed people retain “soft parts” that the evils of slavery can never truly touch.
Though Annis seldom speaks and her dialogue often consists of single, short sentences, her thoughts sing with Ward’s signature lyricism. Ward’s choices of first-person point of view and present tense anchor us in Annis’ imagination. The narrator pictures her mother’s eyes “shriveled to pale raisins”; the ropes that bind her are “abrasive as a cat’s tongue on my open wrists”; a dying man is “a tunneling worm, shifting the earth above him.” These vivid observations and poetic interpretations express her resistance against bondage, her abiding understanding of beauty and her will to survive.
We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Ward’s reimagining of slavery is the profound manifestation of that possibility.