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Book Summary and Review: Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

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let us descend book review

Editorial note: I received a copy of Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

Book review and synopsis for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward, a gripping historical fiction novel that illuminates the brutal realities of slavery in pre-Civil War America.

For a complete list of Jesmyn Ward’s books in order, click here!

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Plot Summary | Book Review | Criticism | Read or Skip? | Book Club Questions

Plot Summary

Let Us Descend is a haunting and lyrical exploration of the harrowing journey of Annis, an enslaved girl in the pre-Civil War American South. Raised on a plantation in North Carolina, Annis is the daughter of her enslaver, a white man, and her enslaved mother.

Their lives are brutally disrupted when her mother is sold, leaving Annis alone. Through her mother’s teachings and the spirits of her ancestors, Annis learns the art of self-defense and survival.

As Annis navigates the horrors of slavery, including the constant threat of separation from loved ones, she finds solace in her relationship with Safi, another enslaved woman. However, their love is discovered, and they are both sold, setting Annis on a treacherous journey from North Carolina to a New Orleans slave market. Guided by the spirit of Mama Aza, a powerful ancestral presence, Annis faces unimaginable challenges, both physical and spiritual, on her way to the South.

Throughout her journey, Annis encounters a series of trials that test her resilience and determination. She confronts the brutality of slave auctions, the degradation of sexual slavery, and the harsh realities of plantation life. Along the way, she draws strength from her connection to her ancestors and the natural world, finding moments of grace and courage even in the midst of despair.

As Annis descends deeper into the heart of slavery, both geographically and metaphorically, she undergoes a profound internal transformation. She discovers her own resourcefulness and strength, learning to navigate the complex web of power and oppression that defines her existence.

The novel’s title, borrowed from Dante’s Inferno, echoes Annis’s descent into the depths of her own hellish reality, where she confronts the darkness of human cruelty and the enduring power of the human spirit.

Book Review

Let Us Descend is a powerful historical fiction set in the heart of pre-Civil War America. This novel, narrated by Annis, a young slave, offers a poignant and haunting glimpse into a world defined by its brutality and resilience.

Ward’s meticulous research is evident in every page. Annis’s narrative is rich with detail, painting a vivid picture of the horrors faced by slaves during that time. The scenes, especially the slave auction described with stark brutality, are chillingly real, reminding readers of the inhumanity inflicted upon those in chains. One quote, from Annis at a slave auction: “The men who stop and inquire blur to one after a week. The only thing that shines clear when they hesitate before is that which tells their cruelty. A riding crop rapped against a leg.”

Annis, the protagonist, is a beacon of strength amidst the darkness. Guided by the spirits of her ancestors, her journey is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. The complex relationships Ward weaves, particularly Annis’s bond with her mother and Safi, showcase the intricacies of love and survival in a world designed to strip away humanity.

Their moments of connection are like rays of sunlight piercing through stormy clouds, offering a glimmer of hope amidst the despair. Ward does not shy away from depicting the abhorrent facets of slavery, including sexual exploitation and family separation, painting a raw and unfiltered portrait of the era.

One of the novel’s strengths lies in Ward’s meticulous attention to detail, which renders even the most grotesque scenes with poetic elegance. Her vivid descriptions force readers to confront the brutality head-on, making each page a visceral experience. Through Ward’s prose, the landscape becomes a character in itself — a “wide, cry-choked hell” where every step echoes with the anguish of the enslaved. Ward’s portrayal of the Great Dismal Swamp, a refuge for runaway slaves, is hauntingly beautiful, serving as a stark contrast to the atrocities of the plantation.

The novel’s blend of historical accuracy and elements of magical realism creates a unique atmosphere. Ward’s prose, often poetic and raw, captures the emotions and struggles of the characters brilliantly. I was particularly moved by the portrayal of Annis’s resilience and her ability to find solace even in the bleakest moments.

Let Us Descend isn’t an easy read, but it’s a necessary one. Ward’s storytelling, while intense, is illuminating. This book, with its raw portrayal of humanity’s strength in adversity, has left a profound impact on me. Highly recommended.

Some criticism

While Ward’s narrative is undeniably powerful, there are moments where the story feels overly detailed, bordering on exhaustive. Certain scenes, particularly during Annis’s arduous journey, could have been condensed without losing their impact. The stream of consciousness style, while offering insight into Annis’s thoughts, occasionally becomes convoluted, making it challenging to follow the narrative thread.

Additionally, the novel’s use of magical realism, while poignant, might not resonate with readers who prefer a more grounded historical narrative. The interactions with spirits and dream sequences, though beautifully crafted, might feel disconnected to those seeking a strictly realistic portrayal of the era.

Read it or skip it?

If you appreciate historical fiction that delves deep into the human experience, this book is a compelling and enriching choice.

There’s so much tragedy in this novel, and a significant amount of magical realism.

Annis is a resilient young woman who keeps up and lives against all odds. The writing is urgent and beautiful, the plotting careful and propulsive. Jesmyn Ward’s exquisite prose combines with meticulous historical research, breathing life into a dark period of American history.

This novel deserves the praise it has received. I’ll certainly be thinking about it for many years to come.

P.S. For my book club questions for this book, click here!

Happy reading! ❤️