Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

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Reviewed by Harriet

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 took 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 lightening-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.

So begins the story of Annis, whose life we follow from early childhood through terrible pains, losses and privations to a future which has at least a gleam of hope. You may think you’ve read enough accounts, historical or fictional, to know all you need to know about the unspeakable sufferings of enslaved people, but – apart from the fact that no amount of reminders are too many – you will never have read one like this one.

I have to say, however, that I almost didn’t start this book after I’d read the publisher’s introductory address: ‘Dear reader, You are holding in your hands a masterpiece….It is a text that feels almost sacred’. Call me cynical, but  I find hyperbole like this incredibly off-putting. However, start I did, and it didn’t take long to be drawn in, as Annis recounts her early childhood in the plantation where she was conceived by the white man she knows as her sire and her beautiful angry mother. She learns about her grandmother Aza, one of numerous wives of a powerful king, expelled from his palace when her love affair with one of the guards was discovered, captured and put on board a ship where she gave birth to Annis’s mother, who was immediately enslaved the minute she was born.

Annis never met her grandmother, but Mama Aza becomes for her an almost mythical figure of female strength and endurance.  These are qualities she will be in desperate need of when first her mother and then she herself are sold away from the plantation. The loss of her mother puts her in a state of such despair that she can’t sleep, won’t eat, cannot communicate with the friends whose lives she has always been part of. Her pain is finally lifted a little when she enters a loving relationship with beautiful Safi, only to experience another loss when Safi manages to escape from the chain gang taking them both to New Orleans in the very deepest south. Annis will always wonder if she managed to evade re-captivity.

Starved, beaten, punished, sold to another cruel master, Annis is at breaking point and may never recover, but something strange and inexplicable happens which will carry her through the appalling conditions of her life:

The woman stops a tall man’s length away from me, far enough for me to see the black sheen of her eyes, to see that there is something wrong with her skirt, with her top. What I took for silver thread woven into the fabric, glinting in the firelight, is electric, lightening slithering over her garments. Her skirts are not silk but cotton spun fine, but are obscure and full as high summer clouds, towering in the sky, boiling and breaking. What I thought was a cape is tendrils of fog draped over her shoulders, yielding curtains of rain down her arms.

‘Who are you?’ I ask.

…’I come to deliver you’ she says.

This spirit, for such she is, may or may not be her grandmother’s spirit, but Annis comes to know her as Mama Aza. Her power is limited, but her presence, which comes and goes, is what will carry Annis through the many trials which she still has to undergo, and give her strength for the final act of defiance whose culmination is, at the very least, a hopeful one.

Jesmyn Ward – described by Ann Patchett as ‘one of the most important writers in America today’ – is a prize-winning African American novelist, and here she is imagining her own origin story. Her own account of her writing process is worth quoting:

It took years and multiple drafts to understand how Annis and enslaved people might have retained their sense of self, their sense of hope, in a time and place that attempted to negate both, day in and out. It took years to figure out how to look straight at her life and relay the harshness and terror of her days but also to recognise her resistance, her tenderness, her imagination, her belief in who she is and what she is capable of, which she retains, even through the deepest darkness.

So – a masterpiece? That would be purely subjective for each reader. But it is undoubtedly an interesting and important book: the writing is lyrical and the subject matter intriguing. It’s one I’m very glad to have read.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jesmyn Ward, Let Us Descend (Bloomsbury, 2023). 978-1526666710, 320pp., hardback.

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