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Allen Boyer Review – ‘Let Us Descend,’ by Jesmyn Ward

Editor’s Note: Jesmyn Ward is holding a book signing on Nov. 1 at Off Square Books; however, it is sold out. You can reserve a signed copy of the book here.

Jesmyn Ward poses for a portrait outside her great-grandmother’s house in Pass Christian, Miss. Poto credit Emily Kask for NPR.

At the opening of “Let Us Descend,” Jesmyn Ward’s oddly paced but accomplished novel, her
heroine, Annis, is a girl in the household of a rice plantation in the Carolinas. Her black mother
is a slave and servant; her father, the white planter.

Annis empties her father’s chamber pot while his white daughters sleep late.

“They are my half-sisters,” she thinks. “I have known this ever since my mother taught me to fight.”

From what the white girls’ tutor tells them, overheard through closed doors, Annis has learned how Aristotle praised bees for working tirelessly for their queen. (She catches the social metaphor; she looks through it to understand whose interests such fables serve). She has also heard what an old Italian poet wrote of a journey through Hell to Paradise.

Annis’s own story will see her marched South in a slave coffle and sold in New Orleans. The brutality of slavery means immersion in a river and immurement in a plantation jail-pit. Visions of Aza, a goddess or ancestral spirit, dominate Annis’s inner life: a force to learn from, and finally to vanquish.

The best parts of this book are not its dives into the phantasmagorical. Other writers have battled for the territory in which the wrongs of slavery are expressed in bleak fantastic visions: Colson Whitehead with his subterranean railroad in “The Underground Railroad,” the dead hand of Toni Morrison in “Beloved.” When Annis’s mother, by night, teaches her to fight with a spear and staff, many readers will recall the Dahomeyan amazons of “The Woman King” (a mythic past to which Ward alludes).

Aza’s pronouncements are often heavily portentous. (“I found that farseeing spirit with her fortune tellers and her spiritualists: with those who worship her, who catch glimpses of her and attempt to read time through her … A woman comes.”)

By contrast, Ward’s human characters speak like living people: “He got a plaçage woman,” one of Annis’ friends in the kitchen tells her, while they are washing laundry, “a woman like you: light skin, silky hair. . . They all over in New Orleans.”

Equally, in Ward’s hands, the daily cruelties of life in a slave society can be sharper than those sensed in visions. There comes a moment when Annis’s father calls her to his bedroom.

“You’re taller than your mother,’ he says. Where the tutor’s voice is high and breathy, my sire’s voice is deep, grating. I can’t help but startle, dropping his quilt. ‘Come,’ he says. ‘Remove my boots’ . . . ‘You heard me,’ he says. His red hair glints. It is not a question.”

Routinely, slavery weighs harder on black women. In New Orleans, a slave dealer prods Annis
to speak up for a customer:

“‘Is she mute?’ the woman asks him. ‘I already got one serving in the house who can’t talk. I don’t need another.’ . . . ‘I think she waiting for a man to come along,’ the seller says. ‘I think that’s more to her liking.’

Surrender, the Italian said. ‘No,’ I blurt. ‘I cook. I sew. I launder.’”

Not to please a woman buyer may mean going to a male buyer; not to sell oneself as a housemaid may mean being bought as a sexual plaything. That passage is alert to the subtle forms that menace can take.

Ultimately, the central metaphor of this book is a tiny charm, “like a white awl, thin as a needle” – part of an elephant’s tusk, carried by Annis’ mother and grandmother before her: something that recalls heritage, adorns beauty, and opens what is forbidden. Ward also has a knack for working a poet’s language into her sentences. There is a brilliant, biting prose-poem here, eight or more visions of New Orleans, that recalls but does not copy Carl Sandburg’s paean to Chicago.

Ward’s skills light up this historical, allegorical work as they have lit up her novels about her native ground on the Gulf Coast. Anyone with an imagination can be a fantasist. In “Let Us Descend,” Ward shows once more her formidable gifts as a novelist.

Let Us Descend, by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner. 305 pages. $28.00.

Allen Boyer, book editor of HottyToddy, grew up in Oxford and now writes in New York City.

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