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Review of “Let Us Descend” by Jesmyn Ward – an examination of life on a plantation as hellish.


In her book, “Men We Reaped,” Jesmyn Ward shares her personal experiences growing up impoverished in the southern United States and the tragic deaths of five men close to her. She expresses a nagging dissatisfaction with her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds,” particularly with the twin brothers who struggle to find work after high school and are forced to choose between minimum-wage jobs or drug dealing to make ends meet. Ward felt that these characters were not fully developed because she struggled to accurately depict the challenges faced by young Black individuals in the South and write about them with honesty, similar to an Old Testament God.

Since her first novel, the author has consistently confronted the harsh realities of life. In Salvage the Bones, she portrays a pregnant teenager and her struggling, impoverished family as they face the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Sing, Unburied, Sing also delves into difficult topics such as incarceration, drug abuse, mental illness, and poverty, as well as the struggles of absent fathers and the impact on women and children. Despite these challenges, the author’s powerful writing has earned her two National Book Awards, as she skillfully portrays her characters with their own unique identities, independence, pride, and complexities. Her latest novel, Let Us Descend, delves even deeper into the harsh realities of the author’s personal experiences, exploring the arrival of slave ships and the brutal conditions on plantations. This unflinching portrayal is like being guided into the depths of hell itself.

This is the explicit structure of the novel. Annis is the result of a rape and she and her mother are both slaves in the home of the rapist. Annis’ grandmother was also a slave, having been given as a bride to the king of Dahomey and then sold into slavery when she fell in love with someone else. Annis, while avoiding the advances of the man who fathered her, listens in on her white half-sisters’ lessons and learns about Aristotle and his bees, as well as listening to their tutor read The Divine Comedy. However, when her mother is punished for trying to protect her, she is sold, followed by Annis being sold for daring to love another slave, a woman.

“Let us now go down,” Virgil instructed Dante, “into the dark underworld.” Bound together while sleeping, waking, and walking, chained even as they cross rivers, the enslaved descend through the Carolinas and Louisiana, through swamps infested with alligators (reminiscent of Dante’s swamp), down into the city of suffering – a haunting, misty New Orleans – filled with slave owners, liberated women who roam the streets oblivious to their fellow sisters, and spirits; and from there, into the hellish depths of a sugar plantation.

The restless spirits in Sing, Unburied, Sing are the ghosts of children who were killed and long for love and acknowledgement in order to find peace. They manifest as entire lineages and accompany Annis, with one spirit taking the form of her grandmother but not actually being her. This guide, described as a needy and unpredictable Virgil, proclaims that their people are like storms – chaotic and destructive. The book weaves together different traditions, including “the Italian” and their tormented ghosts, as well as spirits that may be familiar in West Africa or to believers in the zars of East and North Africa. These spirits crave appeasement and recognition, exhibiting qualities such as manipulation, revenge, love, and imperfection. While they may be untrustworthy, they are necessary allies in navigating through psychological and physical pain. At one point, Annis quotes Dante in saying, “Through me you go to the city of grief. Through me you go to everlasting pain.”

The power of this story is especially strong when contrasted with the landscape of the deep south, a place of humid, dangerous darkness that Ward has always portrayed powerfully; and when told in a language that, as in the past, is skilled at connecting emotions to the physical body, and in this case is used to create a heightened level of mesmerizing, chant-like strength. If Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones – which is her most touching and accomplished novel – were small, delicate pieces, filled with intricate voices and emotional turbulence, this is a grand opera, a soaring cry of anguish and sorrow that seeks to balance intimacy and epic proportions.

The use of allegory in the structure of the novel comes at a cost – while it adds depth, it also creates a sense of danger and conflict (despite the fact that the author’s first novel may have some flaws, it effectively conveys this sense of peril and had me putting the book down, worried for the characters). Certain plot devices, such as Annis’s mother training her in combat, are introduced but ultimately go nowhere. Additionally, some characters seem to only serve as tools to move the plot forward, particularly towards the end of the book. The author occasionally falls into the trap of telling rather than showing, and the use of poetic language becomes less impactful over time. The recurring conversations between Annis and the spirit become monotonous, and at times, the author prioritizes flowery language and rhythm over clarity. As I continued reading, I couldn’t help but notice the immense power at play, yet I struggled to feel connected to those affected by it. However, this may be the intended effect – to portray hell as a stagnant and everlasting force that destroys everything it touches.

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Source: theguardian.com