Book Review: Let Us Descend

Book Cover Images image of Let Us Descend

by Jesmyn Ward

Publication Date: Oct 24, 2023
List Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Classification: Fiction
ISBN13: 9781982104498
Imprint: Scribner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Parent Company: KKR & Co. Inc.

Read a Description of Let Us Descend

Book Reviewed by Donna Hill

Acclaimed writer Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner for Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones, returns with her latest, Let Us Descend, a haunting narrative delivered through the voice of the enslaved teenage girl Annis. Ward’s protagonist, Annis, fathered by her slave master, is the narrative’s guide much like the ancient Roman poet Virgil guided Dante down into the depths of hell. Annis’s journey is no less horrific, with the one respite being her own spirit guide and reluctant protector, Aza. Ward presents Let Us Descend in first person, present tense, creating a visceral experience as readers live each moment with Annis.

The story opens with Sasha, Annis’s mother, training her in the ways of the Dahomey warriors as her own mother, Mama Aza, trained her. This is the one thing that Annis’s mother can pass on to her daughter. Much attention is paid to this warrior training in the beginning chapter, however, there is no physical actualization of it in Annis throughout the narrative. “Why?” I [Annis] ask. “Why we do this if we can’t do nothing with it?” I let my staff drop. My mother closes her eyes, sets her spear aside…. “Mama Aza taught me this,” Mama says… “Was about the only thing she could teach me. This and gathering” (16). This is the one of the things that Sasha could give her daughter, to prepare her for their daily descent downstairs from their beds in the attic to await the newest atrocity and assault on their humanity.

In this tale, Ward does not present much newness to the reader regarding the brutalities of slavery. Any narrative about the horrors of slavery inevitably details the terror and the trauma of being sold at auction. For Annis, her first painful experience of this barbaric practice is when her mother is taken from her and sold off. Sold as punishment for subtly getting Annis out of the room when the slave master began eyeing Annis. The anguish that consumes Annis is somewhat soothed by another enslaved girl, Safi. They find comfort in each other. Together they form both an emotional and physical bond that helps to sustain them. They are caught, however, by the master, in a moment of affection. “Panic beats through me, and it rises up and out of me in a laugh, high and jagged. Safi folds her hands, looks down at her feet, bows. My laugh saws away. This hell. Let us descend, I think, and follow Safi out of the room” (35). Their punishment is the Georgia Man who comes with the rope that will bind them to the others for the long grueling walk from the fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets and a plantation in Louisiana. During the weeks’ long walk, Safi manages to escape her bonds and run. Now, Annis is truly alone. It is here that she begins to be visited by the spirit who appears to Annis to be her grandmother or her likeness.

The billowing spirit Aza takes the journey and speaks to Annis in metaphors and ambiguity. She is as much a comfort as she is a taunt—never fully answering Annis’s questions or arriving to help when Annis calls. One can easily question if the spirit is no more than Annis’s hallucinations to relieve herself from the torture of her life or if in fact her ancestor is at her side or if she is finding what she needs for survival inside herself.

Throughout this American horror story, Ward illuminates multiple versions of hell, and purgatory being only those brief moments of relief for Annis as she descends deeper into the abyss. But as much as Dante descended, he eventually ascended. This analogy used by Ward represents Annis’s journey as well. As bit by incremental bit, she fights for and finds happiness, love and an offering of hope, a testament to the strength that her mother instilled in her.

There is much contained in this novel beyond the atrocities of slavery: family, resilience, spirituality, myth, the supernatural, the meaning of legacy, and rebirth. Ward’s beautifully crafted and emotionally filled sentences adds tenderness to the telling of Annis’s harrowing story. Let Us Descend is no easy read, but it is well worth the journey.

Read Scribner’s description of Let Us Descend.

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