In Jesmyn Ward’s New Novel, Slavery Is Hell and Dante Is Our Guide

LET US DESCEND, by Jesmyn Ward

After Annis, the enslaved teenage girl at the center of Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, “Let Us Descend,” finishes her morning tasks — laundry and dusting in her plantation’s manor home — she lingers outside a doorway. Inside the room, the slave owner’s white daughters, Annis’s half sisters, are having their lessons. “The tutor,” Annis recounts, “is telling a story of a man, an ancient Italian, who is walking down into hell. The hell he travels has levels like my father’s house.” The tutor quotes this ancient Italian — Dante: Let us descend and enter this blind world.

Dante’s descent gave him room: In building down, he endowed the “Inferno”’s 34 cantos with a sense of the infinite and eternal. The architecture of hell allowed him to invoke sinners past and present. His pagan literary heroes — including his guide, Virgil — could share space with the lustful Paolo and Francesca, medieval adulterers sentenced to be blown about in the afterlife by hurricane winds, as well as his political adversary, the corrupt Pope Boniface VIII, whom Dante condemns to hell.

Ward, the two-time National Book Award-winning author of “Salvage the Bones” and “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” among other books, similarly fuses Annis’s tale with prominent touchstones in the history of trans-Atlantic slavery, giving the novel an educational bent. Annis’s grandmother, we’re told early on, was an Agojie, one of the famed female warriors of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, recently the subject of the film “The Woman King,” starring Viola Davis. Then, later in the novel, Annis learns about the Great Dismal Swamp in the marshlands of Virginia and North Carolina, where runaway slaves hid for generations before Emancipation. Later still, enslaved in the South by a new master, she hears a rumor that he has a plaçage lover — a reference to a practice common in Louisiana in which a white man “kept” a free woman of color in an extralegal domestic arrangement.

Dante’s visit to the nine rings of hell prompted him to ask an important question of those he meets: How did you get here? It’s one I was hoping to see posed in “Let Us Descend,” a novel about one of America’s original sins: chattel slavery. However, for Ward, hell seems merely an apt descriptor of the conditions of slavery: hellish. The ground Annis walks on is “red-earthed,” her surroundings a “wide, cry-choked hell.” The depths of hell make up the very surface here, but all too often the novel comes across as just that: superficial. It aspires to the epic, but gets lost in a morass of allusions and strained metaphors, never living up to its promise to look deeply at our roots.

The novel opens with a fight scene. Annis’s mother takes her into the woods at night to train her in hand-to-hand combat. These lessons are Annis’s inheritance. Her mother’s mother, nicknamed “Mama Aza,” had been a Dahomey warrior, but was sold into slavery by her husband, the king — as punishment for falling in love with a soldier. While fiction writers do not owe us facts, it should be noted that Dahomey’s wealth was largely based in the slave trade, making this romantic tale of forbidden love feel a bit like sanitized history, an odd choice in a novel that purports to descend into the horrific depths of slavery. More oddly, this narrative thread is taken up by Ward and then fades from view. Annis is no fighter; the closest we get to a display of her Dahomey training is a scene very late in the novel when she expertly ducks an attack by her white mistress only to be struck down by the next blow.

The true subject of “Let Us Descend” is family separation. One day, Annis’s original owner corners her in his room as she goes about her chores. “Annis?” her mother calls from the hallway, trying to prevent her daughter from repeating her own fate. “We done.” This brief expression of maternal protectiveness gets her mother sold, led away by a “Georgia Man” who takes her south to Louisiana. Annis finds comfort in her grief in the arms of an enslaved woman named Safi, but the two are sold off as well when their relationship is discovered. (This moment marks the end of any deep engagement with same-sex desire in the novel, making its brief appearance feel likes tokenism.)

Annis is forced to make the same deadly journey, on foot to a New Orleans slave market. Along the way she is guided by a spirit who takes the form of Mama Aza. It is unclear if we can trust her. More to the point, the spirit is useless, to both Annis and the plot. She sounds as if she is making up her own mythology as she goes, telling Annis: “The place I came into being is a far place. It stretches from horizon to horizon. Under it all, the Water. Lined with silver, black blushed. I was a breath, first. A huff where there was none.”

New Orleans is presented as the hottest point in this hell: “a hive,” Annis thinks, “and us the honey.” There, a slave seller tells her he plans to advertise her as a “fancy girl, my only worth between my legs.” The novel displays an uncomfortable relationship to sexual slavery, treating it as a more demeaning form of servitude than others. To bristle at this attitude might sound as though I am casting a presentist lens over the novel, but it is written in an unabashedly contemporary register. Annis refers to the seller as “the thief” to underscore his moral bankruptcy. Yet the truth is that such “sellers” were working within a perfectly legal framework that was the foundation of Southern capitalism. In such a system, wouldn’t a thief be a liberator? It seems a missed opportunity to interrogate the economic basis for antebellum morality.

Language is an issue in this novel. This is a surprise. In “Salvage the Bones, for example, Ward magically wove the speech patterns of poor Black Mississippi families living along the Gulf Coast into her narrative yarn. That Ward would have an abiding interest in Dante, who wrote “The Divine Comedy” in the Tuscan vernacular rather than in Latin, seems natural. Yet in “Let Us Descend,” there is an inconsistency in how the characters speak: They fall in and out of dialect.

There are too many labored metaphors that pull you out of the story as you struggle to visualize them. After Annis is sold to a plantation outside New Orleans, she surveys the land, and observes: “Far fields spread beyond the kitchen gardens like the white from the yolk of a great egg.” Later, she puts her lips on her shoulder, “just to feel something soft,” only to find that her lips “are hard as a puddle iced over on the first day of winter.” I found myself wondering how hard an iced-over puddle on the first day of winter in the South could possibly be.

This novel felt like a draft, both overworked and under-edited. I kept thinking that the events and places it refers to in passing — the plaçage system of New Orleans, the maroon communities of the Great Dismal Swamp, the slave revolt led by Jean Saint Malo in the 1780s — would each have made a meaty subject for the book. Instead they coexist on the margins, robbing the novel of an anchoring center, while Annis remains a literary conceit — encircled by history but not embedded in it, guided not by Virgil but by a spirit unsure where to go, trapping “Let Us Descend” in purgatory.

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing essayist at the Book Review.

LET US DESCEND | By Jesmyn Ward | 305 pp. | Scribner | $28

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