Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Twice winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Jesmyn Ward returns with a stunning, defiant historical imagining of the American South
Let Us Descend opens with: “The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand” – a sentence, unsettling and compelling, that embodies just how Jesmyn Ward’s lyrical prose acts as a weapon itself. A weapon can be many things – among them, a tool for liberation. Following Annis, a young woman enslaved in the US South, the title for Ward's fourth novel comes from Dante’s Inferno, aligning our protagonist's journey with a descent into hell. Yet Annis’ story rejects the terms of Dante’s abyss: the abandonment of hope, the acceptance that punishment is deserved, the worship of anything besides love and freedom.
There are direct parallels between this historical narrative and present-day struggles for freedom: twice, Ward uses the phrase “I can’t breathe”, words that echo those of George Floyd, whose murder at the hands of the police set the world alight with protests. Ward wrote about this movement and its relation to her own personal grief in a 2020 Vanity Fair piece following the death of her husband – her reference here reminds us that the structural violence of racial capitalism endures, as does resistance.
Ward’s description of people whose lives are narratively predetermined to tragedy is defiant, fiercely imbueing them with love and a will to life even in situations of extremely compromised agency. She reminds us that this is what we owe to each other, and what will set us free.