Let Us Descend: A Novel
A new Jesmyn Ward novel is a literary event. Ward has won the National Book Award twice with works that encapsulate the U.S.’s horrific history of racism and inequality. This new novel, with a superb title borrowed from Dante’s Inferno and beautiful cover art by Jaya Miceli, promises much. Its subject, slavery—vital and perennial—allows Ward to follow in the footsteps of arguably the greatest African American writer of all, Toni Morrison. Alas, though, Let Us Descend never quite rises to the heights of its promise.
The novel tells a potentially great story: Annis, a teenage girl in the early years of the 19th century, is born into hell on earth: a life of slavery. We witness myriad cruelties that lead to her being force-marched from North Carolina to a New Orleans vividly depicted as a mix between Dickensian London and something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. There, she is sold. The Dante reference is followed through, with various descents occurring during and after the journey, including navigating a vast swamp, an echo of The Styx in Dante’s fifth circle of hell. Under the yoke of her new owners, she finds no respite.
Throughout her journey, Annis is accompanied by Aza, who is the spirit of someone resembling her maternal grandmother, a warrior from Dahomey. The spirit manifests itself as an image in the sky. And here’s where, for the reader, the trouble starts. The dialogue between Annis and Aza grows increasingly wearying as we realize that the spirit doesn’t actually do much except slow down the narrative. Indeed, magical realism and Aza’s machinations take too dominant a role for too little a payoff. With a story this gripping, more realism and less magic might have worked better.
Another issue is that, at times, Ward’s language becomes a distraction. Reviewers have praised this novel’s lyricism. Kirkus describes the “power, precision, and visionary flow” of Ward’s writing; Esquire notes “lyric brilliance;” and The Guardian says the novel is adept at “yoking language to the body.” While there are numerous beautiful passages describing landscapes and weather, Ward’s lyricism—and particularly her evocations of the human body—sometimes goes awry.
A few examples: "My lungs snap and bellow"; "There is water everywhere: igniting my nose"; "She breathes wetly"; "I gather my own ground-down bones, breaking dusty at the joints"; "My eyelids rasp closed"; "Her mouth frowning, her eyes apologetic"; "my hope gone rancid, bubbling up to eat at the back of my tongue like acid"; “a twig-necked . . . man.”
The biggest problem with the language, however, is that Ward can’t decide if the story is to be told in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or standard modern English. Several of the characters in the book, including the narrator, switch in and out. So one moment Annis says, “The Georgia man done made a mistake” and in the same paragraph she says, “the first time I made it through her whirring defense” (my italics). African Americans engage in code-switching all the time, for various reasons. But it doesn’t work here. We never fully grasp Annis’ voice because her language oscillates between authorial lyricism and the AAVE of an illiterate enslaved 19th century girl. In other words, the voice is unmoored from the historical reality of the story.
If the story and language are flawed, there is still plenty here to admire: Ward’s ambition in coming to terms with American history, her evocation of terror in scenes such as Annis’s crossing of a deep river while bound to other enslaved folk, and Ward’s unflinching gaze in the face of evil. It must be said, also, that the novel reaches a memorable denouement. In a scene involving a rainstorm that borrows heavily from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Annis grows in strength as a character. Her trials force her into a resilience that resembles heroism, and we come to root for her. There is a dictum for novelists: “put your main character through hell.” Ward does this, using Dante and slavery, and the result is at times harrowing.