Let Us Descend

Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
United Kingdom
24 October 2023

Let Us Descend

Jesmyn Ward

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.


Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Let Us Descend, has been eagerly anticipated since it was announced, and comes six years after her last. Ward has won the National Book Award twice – for Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) and Salvage the Bones (2011). Her memoir Men We Reaped also won multiple awards. Ward’s writing moves from strength to strength; this new novel is being hailed as a masterpiece.

With such expectations, surely there will come a fall? Well, yes, but it’s not a failure to deliver on potential or a fall from grace for Ward, it’s a descent (further) into hell for her main character, Arese, more widely known as Annis. Ward’s earlier novels were set in contemporary Mississippi, but in this piercing examination of grief and identity, Ward takes the reader back to a time before the American Civil War. Annis is a young enslaved person who, shortly after her mother is sold, is forced to undertake a treacherous journey from a rice plantation in the Carolinas to a sugar plantation in Louisiana, via New Orleans.

Let Us Descend openly references Dante’s circles of hell, and it is not a stretch to say that in her portrayal of the lives of enslaved people in the American South, and aboard the original ships that took enslaved people there, Ward conjures the bone-grinding reality of the horrors of slavery, and creates as convincing a vision of physical and emotional hell as any you will ever read. Ward’s writing is extraordinary: this is a novel about some of the most inexplicable and cruel human behaviours and systems, and of what it is like to live through them, yet despite viscerally transporting the reader into this world, Ward also opens up inner lives, in parallel, with magnetic, transcendent empathy.

As in her earlier works, there are many layers to this novel, and it is impossible to condense its accomplishments into this short space. But for its imagining of how the human spirit could survive the worst inhumanities an individual and a society could inflict upon other humans, it is possibly unmatched. Annis and the ephemeral Mama Aza are unforgettable, as are the vital stories they tell themselves

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