Let Us Descend: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club 2023)

by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 2023

Call number

FIC WAR

Publication

Scribner (2023), 320 pages

Description

Fiction. African American Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:From Jesmyn Ward�the two-time National Book Award winner, youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, and MacArthur Fellow�comes a haunting masterpiece, sure to be an instant classic, about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War. "'Let us descend,' the poet now began, 'and enter this blind world.'" �Inferno, Dante Alighieri 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 listener'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 listeners 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
The subject here is endurance and triumph over deprivation, cruelty and abuse. Nothing is softened or euphemized, yet often while reading I felt the way I sometimes feel reading poetry...the words wash over me as the meaning sinks away beneath the tide. Metaphor and symbolism are as thick as
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mosquitoes in the Louisiana swamps. Some of it works, a lot of it doesn't. I had a very hard time with the narrative voice--first person, present tense, modern excellent English, from a 19th century unlettered, 3rd generation enslaved African woman half dead from starvation, physical punishment and exhaustion. I just couldn't suspend my disbelief, first that any human being could endure for over a year the overwork, lack of food (and I mean near absence of food), constant harassment and fear of beating or being consigned to "the hole", and retain any sense of self, no matter how well trained in martial arts nor how determined she might be; and second, that even the basest of slave-runners or slaveholders would fail to provide their human "livestock" with the minimum requirements of life to protect their investment. A horse treated as Annis and her companions were treated would soon fall down dead and useless. Cattle driven to market under the conditions we are shown would arrive with little value left on their bones, if they hadn't drowned or collapsed before reaching their destination. I know that conditions for enslaved people were brutish, filthy, and dangerous; I know that a great many died of their mistreatment and a great many were intentionally mutilated or killed for minor transgressions, let alone for outright rebellion or attempts to escape. I know that to some white people they were considered expendable in ways that farm animals were not...not just less than human, but less than alive. I still balked at a mistress who made no provision whatsoever (as far as I could gather from the text) for feeding her house slaves, even punishing them for trying to cook a dead wild animal no white person would eat, because it was hers and so was the fire. Yes, the woman was demented, but there was no counterpoint to her ...nothing to suggest that her approach was atypical in any way. Let Us Descend is literary; it has some "good bones" as a story. Ward's descriptive talent is huge. (Rarely have I encountered such marvelous use of the English language to present such unpalatable content.) But overall, I cannot rate this book very highly, as it simply failed to work for me.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I read Ward's first 2 novels that won the National Book Award. They were excellent and I gave each 4 stars. I was looking forward to this book but was very disappointed. The story about slavery in the mid 19 century was very brutal and was expected. The plot is about Annis who is a teen age slave
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born from a rape of. her mother by the white slave master. She is separated from her when her mother is sold and then soon after Annis is also sold. The book then depicts in brutal detail the slave trek with all of the men and women slaves chained together going from the Carolinas to New Orleans to be sold on the auction block. Ward describes this long slog in beautiful language but the subject is brutal. What I had a real problem with was her introduction of magic realism. The constant use of spirits was very distracting and kept me from engaging in the real story of Annis's struggle agains horrible conditions. This book did not add to my. knowledge of the slavery and I, like other readers, had trouble with the brutal treatment of the slaves on the march to New Orleans knowing that these slaves had great value when sold. Was Ward trying to show brutality that went beyond viewing slaves as "livestock"? We also had Annis as a narrator using beautiful English while she was using her own uneducated language in real scenes. I do understand the Ward was dealing with the sudden death of her husband from Covid when she was writing this book. For some readers the magic realism and spirit world worked. For me it did not. I strongly recommend her National Book Award winning books. In terms of slavery's brutality there are many other books that describe it in more concise terms than this book. Again, her writing is beautiful but it did not work to advance the plot in this book.
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LibraryThing member browner56
In the years before the Civil War, a child is born out of wedlock, the product of a non-consensual relationship between a white plantation owner and one of his slaves. The father disavows all responsibility for the child and she grows up as just another slave on the estate. Both mother and daughter
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are eventually sold to another owner and forced to walk in a brutal chain-gang from the Carolinas to southern Louisiana, where they are to be sold again to the highest bidder. The daughter, who has no idea what becomes of her mother, endures the journey only to be placed in the service of a sadistic woman who runs a sugar cane plantation. All the while, the girl is kept alive and guided in her quest for freedom by otherworldly spirits who assume the identity of her dead relatives and speak to her.

That is essence of Annis’ story, as told in Let Us Descend by celebrated author Jesmyn Ward. The novel’s title alludes to a passage from the Inferno in which Dante begins his descent into Hell, guided by the shade of the poet Virgil. This becomes an apt metaphor for the soul-crushing journey through life that Annis finds herself on, which is unrelentingly grim in almost every instance. (In a playful touch of irony, Ward has Annis hear Dante’s poem recited during the little bit of education she is allowed, meaning that the character has a literary context for just how bad her plight really is.) Perhaps the only things saving the reader from the comparably grim fate of experiencing Annis’ pervasive misery are the often sublime sentences that the author constructs in telling the tale. Ward truly is a wordsmith of the highest order and many of the images she creates are as remarkable as they are compelling.

And yet, Let Us Descend is far from a perfect novel and it is also one that, for me, falls well short of the impossibly high standard the author has set with her previous work (Salvage the Bones, Sing, Unburied, Sing). The biggest shortcoming in this book is its overreliance on the magical realism elements embodied in the spirits with whom Annis is in almost constant contact. In fact, the term “element” is misleading here because Aza, the spirit who impersonates Annis’ grandmother, appears so frequently that she/it really becomes a main character in the story; certainly, Annis does not “talk” to anyone else nearly as much as she does to Aza. Unfortunately, most of these conversations are turgid and repetitive to the point that they become a distraction. So, while Annis’ history is one that is well worth telling, this rendition was not as affecting as it might have been.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
I knew from the first sentence I could never write anything deserving of this book: "The first weapon I ever held was my mother's hand." The book begins with the beautiful relationship of young Annis and her mom at her "sire's" house. The first part of the book might be the most enchanting and
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strongest, simply because of this solid, admirable relationship between a mother and daughter. Annis hears her half-sisters being taught Dante's Inferno by their tutor. Soon, Annis starts her own journey shortly after. To be fair, I have never read Dante's Inferno, so I'm not sure how much Ward's novel actually mirrors that book. But I don't think I would want it to -- this is perfect the way it is, no knowledge of Dante's Inferno is necessary. Dante's Inferno is more like an inspiration or jumping off point. Orienting the American South during times of slavery as Dante's Inferno really doesn't seem like a far stretch or impossible idea, but man, this is brutal. But there is purpose in this brutality and beauty within this book. It doesn't take much to make any slave narrative seem like a hellscape -- just tell the truth. Injustice after injustice, as it usually was/is for people of color. I'm a little sad this is being published in October, as it seems necessary to read it in summer. Both for the themes and setting, but also for mental health of the reader. To be honest, the two Jesmyn Ward novels that I previously have read were not novels that I found to be my favorites and other readers have loved her books much more than I do. But this one! Wow. Words can't describe. It's like this is a lesson that I have to read every book by every author or something. Yikes. Maybe her style of writing just works better with a more historical setting? I kept wanting to read these sentences as slow as honey. I had heard that Jesmyn Ward lost her husband a couple years ago, and this is very much a book about grief. This book is a diamond made from grief. Though Jesmyn Ward has already won so many awards, I think this will win ALL the awards. This is an example of the most perfect art that has resulted from something so terrible in American history. Stunning, luminous, heartbreaking, perseverant, redeeming, necessary. I'm honored to have had the privilege of reading it.
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LibraryThing member Maret-G
This is a story of Annis, an enslaved girl who together with other slaves was walked by Georgia Man from Carolina to New Orleans. The harsh, long march took some people’s lives. They were starved and treated brutally.

After the walk south, Annis thought there could be nothing worse than what she
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had already experienced until the day she was sold to the owner of the sugar plantation in Luisiana. Her nightmare continued. Guided by the memories of her mother and stories of her grandmother, she hoped for a better tomorrow.

Sad, painful, full of grief story and yet filled with beautiful memories, beliefs, and hope. Beautifully written but the magical realism was sometimes little bit confusing for me, and I didn’t expect it to be mixed with historical fiction events. I strongly believe that this book will be loved by many readers.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Brutal to the core, this is the story of one woman's descent into the depths of southern slavery. Annis' mother was the daughter of a warrior woman and she teaches Annis many of the warrior moves as well as about herbs, etc. She is the daughter of the sire of the house who angrily sells the mother.
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Later, Annis is also sold south to a sugar cane plantation.

The difficulty for me with this book is not the plot, but Annis' constant communication with Aza, the spirit of her mother, or her grandmother, or some guiding spirit. The story meanders back and forth from reality to the magical realism world of the spirit. Probably beautiful writing in places, but at times it just seemed there was no real character development just a series of the horrors of slavery, one event after the other: the trek to New Orelans, the slave market, the constant hunger, the escape. I'm just not a fan of magical realism.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
Beautiful prose, sometimes stunningly so. The writing about the experiences of enslaved people in the American south is harrowing but bearable, in a way that allows for imagining the circumstances and engaging with them. The writing about nature is lovely. The main character's struggle with her
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goddess is interesting to a point and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. But that special whatever it is that makes a book come together, hold together, and sing just isn't quite there. Someone said in an amazon review that the writing is great, the beginning is great, and the end is great, but everything in between is kind of a slog that doesn't feel purposeful. That's pretty much it. So much going for it, but it doesn't quite work.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
My four stars here are based more upon the beauty of the writing and my reading history with an author I love and respect than by the plot. And I have been reading too many stories of the historical misery of Black women (Perish, The Unsettled), but this one had more magical realism and spirits
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than I enjoy. The story of Annis, sold South by her father slaveowner after her mother was also sold, is a trail of tears, fears, and pain. She is accompanied by the spectres of earth and water and by Aza, a warrior spirit who fought in the King's army with her grandmother. Annis also has brief conversations with her mother, knowing that she has died. She forms close ties with other women and loses them by escape from the coffle (platoon of slaves) and by drowning. There are similarities here between this novel and Lauren Groff's The Vaster Wilds, although in the latter, the traveler is younger, white, and free, and her journey takes place 200 years earlier. In both, the protagonists have difficult choices to make about choosing life among people or alone.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
In “Let Us Descend” Jesmyn Ward imagines how slavery could have felt through the eyes of a Black slave named Annis, whom we first meet as a young girl. Annis is the product of her master repeatedly raping her mother, who herself was the daughter of an African warrior.

First her mother is sold,
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and then Annis, who is destined for the slave markets of New Orleans. (She, along with other slaves, has to walk there from the Carolinas).

The author has said that she “wanted to encourage readers to feel with and for Annis, and to recreate her experience as viscerally as possible.” This she does, to devastating effect. But she also wants to convey how someone enslaved might have retained a sense of self, even when she had no physical agency over her own body, and what she did or did not do with it.

Annis relies a great deal on the memories of stories told to her by her mother about her warrior ancestors, as well as a belief in spirits in nature.

The writing is excellent but the experience of enslavement, as seen through Annis’s eyes, is almost unbearably terrifying and horrifying at once. It is a lovely book and perhaps a necessary book for both Black and white descendants of the slavery period, but not for the faint of heart.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
historical fiction - an enslaved woman journeys from one figurative circle of hell into another, telling the stories of the other souls that suffer alongside her as she goes.
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This is the story of Annis, her childhood enslaved on a North Carolina plantation working as a housemaid in her father's house, close to her mother, who protects and nurtures her as best she can, teaching her about her grandmother, who was brought over from Africa. Then first her mother is sold,
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then Annis is sold and marched to New Orleans to be sold, entering into worse circumstances with every mile deeper into the South.

Ward is a brilliant writer, her words sing from the page and her use of magic realism folds naturally into this very harsh story. I avoided this novel because although I loved Sing, Unburied, Sing, it was clear from the description that this novel would be hard to read. But eventually I did pick it up and it is a testament to how well Ward writes that a novel as unrelentingly bleak as this one would flow so beautifully. It's both horrifying and gorgeous. I will likely never want to read this book again, but so much of it is sitting with me, inhabiting my imagination now.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Excellent lyrical book. Not many people will love this book but I thought it as amazing. She has a particular writing style.
LibraryThing member Cariola
I really enjoyed Jesmyn Ward's earlier books, but this one not so much. The writing is fine, but I am just not a fan of magical realism. The hardships of slavery were relentless, but that is both the author's point and reality. But I found myself annoyed whenever the unreliable ancestor spirit Aza
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appeared, as well as the ones that Take and Give. It took me a really long time to struggle through it because of this.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
[3.25] How I wanted this widely-acclaimed book that reimagines Dante’s “Inferno” to land on my all-to-short list of 5-star reads. It seemed to have all the ingredients. A socially and historically significant theme that creatively explores the tragedy of slavery through the eyes of a girl. A
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heartbreaking storyline that shines a spotlight on the resiliency of the human spirit. A talented author known for her lyrical prose. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me — and I’m struggling to understand why it didn’t. I think my biggest issue involved the way the story unfolded in a stream of consciousness style fashion. It was a challenge for me to navigate the narrative path. As for the magical realism – something I typically get into – this aspect of “Let Us Descend” seemed – for a lack of a better word – “contrived.” Nevertheless, the book sheds light on a harrowing era in our nation’s history. The author clearly did meticulous research and used her wordsmithing to craft a myriad of riveting vignettes.
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LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
Very character-driven magical realism historical fiction story with lyrical prose but very little plot.
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Annis is a slave on a plantation in Virginia. Her father is the plantation owner. When she rebuffs his advances she is sold further south. The journey to New Orleans is long and nearly unbearable. The scenes where the slaves are forced to cross rivers are awful. Upon reaching New Orleans, Annis is
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purchased by a woman who runs a sugar plantation. She is starved and worked mercilessly. She has a spirit, her grandmother Aza who watches over her. This is gut-wrenching, but probably a more true portrayal of slavery than what we usually are fed.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
I have long admired Jesmyn Ward’s writing, especially Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward’s latest novel, Let Us Descend, doesn’t reach those lofty heights but is still a creative, worthwhile read. The novel centers on Annis, the daughter of an enslaved woman who was raped by the plantation owner.
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Annis’ mother trains her to fight, as her African warrior grandmother once did before she, too, was sold into slavery. But a strong will and fighting skills are not enough to fend off the physical and sexual abuse inflicted by white people on enslaved people.

After Annis’ mother is taken away and sold, Annis begins seeing a spirit named Aza, who takes the form of her grandmother. Annis calls on Aza to help her through a series of the hardships. Aza is inconsistent and no substitute for Annis’ mother, but their dialogue helps Annis find her way. I had difficulty suspending my disbelief over Aza’s character, and found the Aza-Annis dialogue difficult to follow at times.

Ward’s literary talents were most on display when describing the horrors Annis endured, and the violent behavior of the white community. She doesn’t mince words, but stories like these need to be told and re-told, in hopes that as a society we will someday atone for this period in history.
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
Jesmyn Ward writes on a different plane than other people, somehow turning prose into poetry while telling heart-breaking stories. With Let Us Descend, she again transcends the novel form to give readers the spiritual introspection and struggle of Annis, an enslaved young woman who endures the
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separation from her mother, the forced march from Carolina to Lousiana, and the atrocities of a sugar plantation. Throughout it all, Annis converses with the spirits of her ancestors and learns their secrets and histories as she struggles to survive. Let Us Descend is a beautifully difficult book that explores themes of slavery, motherhood, and ancestry like only Jesmyn Ward can.
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LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
This is a fascinating book about the French art thief Stéphane Briestweiser and his girlfriend Anne Catherine Kleinkhaus. He is a lover of any form of pre-renaissance art and in 1991 steals his first small ivory statue from a museum in Antwerp. It is a sculpture of Adam and Eve and becomes his
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favourite piece. They return to Mulhouse, France south of Strasbourg. They live in the attic of his mother’s house, Mireille Stengel.
As a former museum security guard, Breitweiser knows the ins and outs of weaknesses in security systems and uses his knowledge and Catherine large purse to snatch anything that they fancy. He does not consider himself to be a thief as he does not profit from the stolen goods. The apartment is filled with over 200 objects that he adores for their beauty.
When he is finally caught returning to the scene of an earlier theft, police authorities in several countries collaborate to build their case and find him guilty.
Good story.
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Awards

Kirkus Prize (Finalist — Fiction — 2023)
Aspen Words Literary Prize (Longlist — 2024)
Southern Book Prize (Finalist — Fiction — 2024)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Fiction — 2024)
Libby Book Award (Winner — Historical Fiction — 2023)
Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year (Historical Fiction — 2023)
LibraryReads (Monthly Pick — October 2023)

Pages

320

ISBN

198210449X / 9781982104498
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