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Jesmyn Ward – Let Us Descend [Feature Review]

Let Us DescendA Profound Connection Between Two Hands

A Feature Review of

Let Us Descend: A Novel
Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover: Scribner, 2023
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Reviewed by Catherine Hervey

“The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand.” So begins the story of a warrior with no army. 

Let Us Descend is the latest novel by two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. Its geographical terrain is similar to the American south of her previous books, but unlike the contemporary Mississippi of Salvage the Bones or Sing, Unburied, Sing, this is her first foray into the region’s past.

Our narrator is Annis, an enslaved young woman on a Carolina rice plantation who is also the granddaughter of an Agojie warrior from Dahomey. Though Annis’s grandmother was sold across the ocean, she passed her training on to the daughter she was pregnant with on that terrible journey–Annis’s mother. Annis’s mother, in turn, is determined to continue this legacy, and so Annis trains with her mother at night in a clearing beneath a tree full of bees.

It’s a painful irony–women with deadly skills who cannot defend themselves against such an all-encompassing, many-faced enemy as the enterprise of slavery. Annis could overcome an assailant in combat, but there is of course the question of what would follow if she did. And so she trains in secret and darkness, burying her weapon beneath the bee tree and living a life without much recourse.

Their purpose in these exercises is simply to remember that this place is not where they began. “It wasn’t a perfect world,” Annis’s mother says of their homeland, “but it wasn’t so wrong as this one.” And indeed it is clear that the brokenness in which these women are bound straddles both sides of the ocean. When Annis’s mother is sold away from the plantation, she holds Annis’s face in her hands to say goodbye, just as Annis’s grandmother stood with her face framed by her own distraught mother’s hands when she was cast off and sent to fight for the king of Dahomey. When Annis herself is sold not long after, her own descent into the true depths of the wrongness of her world begins.

Ward has already proven what she can do with mythical allusion in Salvage the Bones, the story of a pregnant teenager reading Medea as Hurricane Katrina strengthens in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, as is evident from the title, Ward pulls from The Inferno, a story Annis hears standing outside the door of the room where her sisters (the master of the house is Annis’s father) study with their tutor. Annis’s journey south with the slave traders is a trip through many-layered hells, and New Orleans is her City of Woe. Her guide is not Virgil but a storm spirit who has taken the name of Annis’s Dahomey grandmother–Aza. The spirit, like Annis and all her people, is not at home. She has followed Annis’s line over the water, and both the scope of Aza’s power and her motives are in question.


Annis’s knowledge of her ancestral home and its spirits goes only as far back as what her mother has chosen to tell her. Narratives of enslavement always reckon with this reality somehow–the challenge of telling the story of generations when characters themselves have been denied that knowledge and experience. One way authors do this is to simply allow the void of the past to exist. Another is to introduce some element of the supernatural that can provide what experience otherwise would not–I think of the generational insight bestowed in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, for instance. Here, with Annis serving as a first person narrator, the supernatural becomes almost a narrative necessity if we are to understand.

Point of view is among the most basic of authorial decisions, but I am always intrigued by its outworkings. In this case, the limitations of Annis’s voice are at once claustrophobic and fascinating. Her metaphor is the language of water, of clothing and chores and leaves. I felt the friction of her violently circumscribed existence as I read again and again the way someone in some way resembled a bird.

Sometimes the language seems almost too clever, descriptions so unique and evocative that they unmoor from reality. A grin that is turned down like a frown, words a hatchet buried in the trunk of a wound, tears leaking slowly to pool around someone’s neck. Upon reading the latter I start to wonder if I’m crazy, trying to imagine this literal occurrence and failing. I read it to my children, who happen to be playing in the same room, and ask them if they think it’s really possible.

“If you have a choker that’s, like, real thick, they could make a little pool and then fall down,” says the younger one. 

“I think it’s just an expression of how many tears she has,” says the ten year old. “It does sound wrong when you first read it, but if you put some thought into it, it starts to get understandable.” 

The problem, then, must be me. Whatever the case, the traumatic pressure of enslavement on a narrator’s sensitive and perceptive mind has yielded strange gems. 

The trauma compounds until one wonders where the deepest level of this hell really is. If you don’t die, then you keep living, but is there a way to make an unchosen life a choice? At a very crucial moment, Annis turns from Aza’s proffered leading and follows… a bee. Bees have been her friends since “her” bees, as she calls them, filled the tree in her clearing.

Honeybees like those in Annis’s tree are not indigenous to North America. They, too, were brought in the seventeenth century. To work. And they, too, have stayed and made this world their own. Bees survive together, and perhaps Annis is not without an army after all. It isn’t an army that can throw off oppression, but it is an army that keeps itself alive and human in the most inhuman conditions.

The love that connects the enslaved people in this novel is both great and terrible. It is never absent, no matter the circumstances. It is Annis, contemplating letting the river pull her under at a crossing but knowing all the other women to whom she is chained would then be in danger as well, so she lives. It is women curling together in sleep to quiet nightmares until it is day again. Annis, watching a mother and daughter interact on the Louisiana sugar plantation to which she is sold, articulates the thread between them this way: She is mine, here is mine, I am hers and she is mine. 

It is not simply that her mother’s hand was an instrument of deadly force (though it was). It is that their connection is the ultimate weapon of survival, the essence of a humanity that cannot be denied. Even when Annis loses her mother, she remains her mother’s daughter. And it is as her mother’s daughter and her grandmother’s granddaughter that she claims a new land beyond the depths of hell as her own.

Catherine Hervey

Catherine Hervey is an essayist, poet, and critic living in Illinois. She has written for outlets like The Washington Post, The Christian Century, and Books and Culture.

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