Reviews of Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend

A Novel

by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward X
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
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  • Published:
    Oct 2023, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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Book Summary

From Jesmyn Ward—the two-time National Book Award winner, youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, and MacArthur Fellow—comes a haunting masterpiece, sure to be an instant classic, about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War.

"'Let us descend,' the poet now began, 'and enter this blind world.'" —Inferno, Dante Alighieri

Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is 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.

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader's guide through this hellscape. 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 Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.

From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a 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, a masterwork for the ages.

Chapter 1: Mama's Bladed Hands

The first weapon I ever held was my mother's hand. I was a small child then, soft at the belly. On that night, my mother woke me and led me out to the Carolina woods, deep, deep into the murmuring trees, black with the sun's leaving. The bones in her fingers: blades in sheaths, but I did not know this yet. We walked until we came to a small clearing around a lightning-burnt tree, far from my sire's rambling cream house that sits beyond the rice fields. Far from my sire, who is as white as my mother is dark. Far from this man who says he owns us, from this man who drives my mother to a black thread in the dim closeness of his kitchen, where she spends most of her waking hours working to feed him and his two paunchy, milk-sallow children. I was bird-boned, my head brushing my mother's shoulder. On that night long ago, my mother knelt in the fractured tree's roots and dug out two long, thin limbs: one with a tip carved like a spear, the other wavy as a ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Annis describes her mother as "a woman who hides a tender heart" (page 4). Name a few moments when Mama reveals her tenderness. How does she conceal her "tender heart" and, in your opinion, what is she protecting by hiding it?
  2. Turn to page 6. Read from "I take care to hide ..." to the text break on page 9 ("Queens."). Bees appear as a motif throughout the novel. According to this passage, what might bees symbolize in Let Us Descend?
  3. On page 33, Annis listens through the door as her half-sisters are taught a passage from Dante's Inferno. Dante's Inferno is a literary antecedent for this book—just as Annis is accompanied on her walk south by Aza, Dante was lead through the nine circles of Hell by the spirit of ...
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BookBrowse Review


By default, slavery offers its horrors as a tension. Annis's overwhelming grief as she loses people close to her is also a relatively expected narrative layer. Mama Aza's mystical, sometimes sinister presence is a fascinating, unexpected tension that complements Annis's experiences very well. But these tensions are not the only moving pieces of the plot as it unfolds: Ward's novel is also a coming-of-age story. Alongside the bleak reality of her life, readers grow up with Annis, hearing her interests and her desire for freedom, seeing how what freedom means to her evolves...continued

Full Review Members Only (819 words)

(Reviewed by Lisa Ahima).

Media Reviews

A new novel from Jesmyn Ward is always a reason for celebration… In this magical realist masterwork, Ward writes with lyric brilliance about women's resilience in the face of heartbreaking odds.

Good Housekeeping
A devastating, deeply moving masterpiece.

Locus Magazine
An articulation of grief and sadness unlike anything I've ever read…While Ward never flinches from the horrors of slavery or the deep scars it has left on America's political and social landscape, it's Annis's unwillingness to succumb to grief and loss that makes Let Us Descend such a powerful novel.

Oprah Daily
[Ward's] most masterful work yet... Pitting ancestral wisdom and human connection against the arbitrary brutality of slavery, this book will have readers torn between wanting to savor the richness of every sentence and needing to know, immediately, what happens next.

Annis's story, told in Ward's musical prose, is nothing short of epic, magical, and intensely moving.

LA Times
Two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward (the first woman and the first Black American to achieve that feat) follows her fierce and tender novel Sing, Unburied, Sing with a historical narrative about survival, iron will and spiritual rebirth. Taking its title from Dante's Inferno, the story follows Annis through the hell of enslavement and the saving grace of ancestral memories.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Annis is strengthened by stories of her warrior ancestors as she struggles to retain her sense of self through the pain and terror of her journey.

The Denver Harold
Ward's writing is breathtaking in its brutal honesty of life among slavers and is also lyrical in the moments of imaginative escape.

Imaginative... Combining magical realism with historical fiction, two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward's fourth novel tells the story of Annis, an enslaved girl in the antebellum South... To survive, she must tap into the mystical in this heart-wrenching narrative of the American South in the age of slavery.

W Magazine
This harrowing, haunting story about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War is inspired in part by Dante's Inferno and the descent into the underworld... Ward, the youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, among many other distinctions, turns her brilliant gaze to the grief and joy of the Black American experience.

Booklist (starred review)
The power and artistry of Ward's work has been celebrated with numerous major awards, and her new novel will be a magnet for readers.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[An] intensely wrought tone poem...[W]hat gives this volume its stature and heft among other recent novels are the power, precision, and visionary flow of Ward's writing, the way she makes the unimaginable horror, soul-crushing drudgery, and haphazard cruelties of the distant past vivid to her readers...Ward may not tell you anything new about slavery, but her language is saturated with terror and enchantment.

Library Journal (starred review)
[Ward] employs her prodigious skills to craft a deeply moving and empathic story... This testament to Ward's mastery of language should leave readers scrambling for a highlighter.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] wrenching and beautifully told story...Throughout, Ward uses stark and striking language to describe Annis's pain...Readers won't be able to turn away.

Author Blurb Anthony Doerr, author of Cloud Cuckoo Land and All The Light We Cannot See
In Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward resurrects an enslaved girl out of the lost folds of the antebellum South, twists magic through every raindrop, mushroom, and stalk of sugar cane, and drops you into the middle of her harrowing, unendurable, magnificent song. This is a gripping, mythic, bone-pulverizing descent into the grim darkness of American slavery—and yet somehow this novel simultaneously leaves you in awe of the human capacity to not only endure, but to ascend back to the light. A spectacular achievement.

Author Blurb Ta-Nehisi Coates
Jesmyn is, quite simply, the best of us.

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Beyond the Book

Free People of Color and Their Roles in the American Slave Trade

Photo of printed pages of the Code Noir with red stamp In Jesmyn Ward's Let Us Descend, one of Annis's enslavers is a woman. Typically, when people think about enslavers and those perpetuating slavery as a system, they often think about white men. Some may find it surprising that women played a significant role in the slave trade, too. Furthermore, white people were not the only ones who owned slaves or participated in upholding slavery. In Let Us Descend, one of the people facilitating Annis's sale is a free woman of color — a fact that reflects the reality of pre-Civil War New Orleans.

To examine how slavery functioned in the American South, it is imperative to understand the full scope of the slave trade, and many of us have an incomplete picture of this devastating history. One...

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