Thursday, April 11, 2024

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend
by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Jesmyn Ward
8 hours, 12 minutes
Published October 2023 by Scribner

Publisher's Summary: 
Let Us Descend describes a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation. A journey that is as beautifully rendered as it is heart wrenching, the novel is “[t]he literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours” (NPR). 

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader's guide. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Annis leads readers through the descent, hers is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation. 

From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this “[s]earing and lyrical...raw, transcendent, and ultimately hopeful” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land-the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward's most magnificent novel yet.

My Thoughts: 
I've been a fan of Ward's since I read Salvage The Bones, Ward's sophomore effort which I read in 2016. I've now read five of her books and I am always impressed by her writing skills, lyrical as they are, and her storytelling ability. Ward is never spares readers the brutality of her characters' lives and never allows us to turn away from them as we become attached to them against all hope. 

Despite the fact that Annis is born into slavery, we have some hope for her early on, as her mother teaches her the way of her warrior grandmother and Annis begins to learn by eavesdropping on her half sisters' lessons. But hope is not something we should expect from Ward. In fact, she goes into great detail as Annis travels south, forcing us to understand what so many enslaved people endured (and often didn't survive); it's the length of this piece that really makes us consider the horrors clearly. 

And here is where my opinion of this book, beautiful and haunting as it is, differs from others' opinions. You are all aware that I struggle with the supernatural in a book. This book is filled with the supernatural. While I can understand why Ward turned to it (why Annis would turn to believing in it), it often overwhelmed the story for me, making me question what was really happening to Annis. Perhaps that was Ward's point. Often the supernatural elements at play here appear to be doing Annis more harm than good. Perhaps precisely Ward's point - sometimes the things we cling to so desperately are harmful. As beautifully written as these parts were, and as much of a relief as they give readers from the reality of Annis' life, they didn't work for me. I know that I'm in the minority in feeling this way and wish I weren't. 

The genesis of the title is from Dante's Inferno and the descent into hell. It's an apt title, as Annis, who surely started in one hell, plunges further and further down. 

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