Let Us Descend

Scribner. Oct. 2023. 320p. ISBN 9781982104498. $28.
With her latest novel, two-time National Book Award winner Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing) gives readers one of the greatest opening sentences to grace a page in recent memory: “The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand.” So begins the story of Annis, a young Black woman enslaved in the antebellum South, navigating the phantasmagoria of her shifting circumstances. The particular hell of slavery in the United States is well-represented in fiction, and Ward doesn’t attempt any kind of reinvention here, nor does she go the route of grand allegory. Instead, she employs her prodigious skills to craft a deeply moving and empathic story of one woman’s contention with her life’s constants—death, loss, and the “descent” of the title, but also hope and the possibility of rebirth. Annis’s journey is brutalizing both spiritually and corporeally, and Ward’s language in rendering this world is as astonishing as the novel’s first sentence promises: “Before turning away from the man who gave me the middle mud of my skin. Spit and spite the ground of the man who sells me…for stealing some life back from him.” Occasionally, it feels like the narrative is missing the idiosyncrasy of Ward’s “Bois Sauvage” books, but that’s ultimately a minor quibble for a novel so bursting with miraculous turns of phrase and indelible images, no observation or incident too insignificant to demand anything less than Ward’s full creative attention.
VERDICT This testament to Ward’s mastery of language should leave readers scrambling for a highlighter.
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