Review of Jesmyn Ward’s “Let Us Descend”: A Difficult Journey Through the Pre-Civil War South
I believe many books should be shorter, not just due to reader laziness. Numerous novels tend to drag and lose momentum in the middle, falling between the gripping beginning and satisfying ending. Jesmyn Ward, a well-known author, is a prime example of this. With her previous two award-winning novels, Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, she became the first woman and African American to win the National Book Award twice. While her latest novel was clearly not rushed, I couldn’t help but wish that she had followed Blaise Pascal’s advice and made it shorter.
“The story begins powerfully, with a strong writing style (“The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand”, is the opening line) and impactful content; the main character, Annis, is taken into the woods by her mother and beaten with a tree limb. It is revealed that her mother is teaching her to defend herself – “in this world, you are your own weapon” – and this lesson is crucial. The setting is North Carolina during the time of slavery, and Annis and her mother are both enslaved on a plantation.”
Shortly after, her mother is purchased, leaving Annis on her own. Eventually, she too is shackled alongside her fellow enslaved individuals and forced to embark on a lengthy journey to Louisiana. The scenery is described with delicate and poetic language – the march is described as a “wide, cry-choked hell” and Annis’s mixed race appearance is referred to as “the middle mud of my skin” – however, this is where the difficulty for the reader arises.
The journey lasts for several months and is described in such great detail that it feels like it is happening in real time. No aspect is left out and the reader is guided through every step. When Annis mentions her “half-sisters” as the enslaver’s daughters, it implies that she was the result of her mother being raped by him. This is a disturbing image, made even more horrifying by Annis’ nonchalant delivery. However, the author cannot resist explicitly stating it again a few pages later, with graphic descriptions. This and other instances suggest that the author lacks faith in her readers and these sections of the book have a similar tone to that of a young adult novel. (In an interview about her previous novel, Ward stated that she writes for her younger self.)
During the initial portion of the book, up until Annis is once again enslaved on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, the publisher’s bold assertions about Let Us Descend on my advanced copy (“a work of genius…a text with a nearly holy quality…”) appeared exaggerated. However, in the last hundred pages, Ward challenges the reader further and produces more remarkable outcomes.
Her use of poetic language serves a unique purpose – describing the bloated and decaying body of a deceased man (“the flesh straining against his garments”) is simultaneously repulsive and commendable. The previous chapters, which were filled with explanations, are now replaced with inquiries as Annis is visited by various voices – the spirits of the land and river, as well as a dominant figure seemingly linked to her grandmother, an African soldier. Additionally, there is an intense build-up of events and conflict towards the conclusion.
The title of the novel “Let Us Descend” is taken from Dante’s Inferno and captures the characters’ experience of hell. It doesn’t offer a unique perspective on slavery unlike other works such as Morrison’s “Beloved,” Butler’s “Kindred,” or Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” However, it is Annis’ personal growth and transformation that ultimately makes the story worth reading. From being a victim of her mother’s abuse, she learns to become resourceful and strong, ultimately realizing that she herself is a powerful weapon.