The two-time winner of the National Book award returns with the tale of an enslaved woman’s journey to Louisiana, rendered in relentless detail
It’s not just reader laziness that makes me feel a lot of books should be shorter. Too many novels dawdle and sag in the middle, drooping between the tautness of an intriguing start and the firmness of a dramatic conclusion. The latest novel by Jesmyn Ward is a case in point. Ward is a big name these days: her last two novels, Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), made her the first woman, and the first African American, to win the National Book award twice. Her new novel has clearly not been rushed, and yet when reading it I couldn’t help wishing – to adapt Blaise Pascal – that she had taken the time to make it shorter.
Yes, it does start strong, in both style (“The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand,” goes the opening line) and content; the narrator Annis’s mother takes her into the woods and repeatedly beats her with a tree limb. We learn that her mother is teaching Annis to fight for herself – “in this world, you your own weapon” – and with good reason. We’re in North Carolina in the time of slavery, and Annis and her mother are enslaved on a plantation.
Pretty soon, though, her mother is sold, Annis is alone, and then she herself is chained to her fellow enslaved people and taken on a long trek to Louisiana. The world is rendered in a careful lyrical style – the march is “this wide, cry-choked hell”; Annis’s light complexion is “the middle mud of my skin” – but this is where the trouble for the reader begins.
There is a genuinely exciting escalation of action and struggle toward the end
The trek lasts for months and is recounted at such gruelling length that it feels like real time. Nothing is left undescribed, and the reader’s hand is held throughout. When Annis makes a reference to the enslaver’s daughters as “my half-sisters”, we infer that Annis was born from him raping her mother. It’s an image all the more horrifying for the casual acceptance with which Annis delivers it. But Ward can’t resist spelling it out explicitly, with vivid descriptions, a few pages later. This and other examples give the sense that Ward doesn’t trust her readers, and these parts of the book have the feel of a young adult novel. (In an interview for her last novel, Ward said she writes for her younger self.)
For the first half of the book – until Annis is re-enslaved on a Louisiana sugar plantation – the extravagant claims made for Let Us Descend by the publisher on my advanced copy (“a masterpiece… a text that feels almost sacred…”) seemed wild. And yet in the final hundred pages Ward does stretch the reader more and the results are far more impressive.
Her lyricism is deployed to richer, stranger ends – a description of a dead man’s swollen and decaying body (“the meat of him pushing against his clothes”) is both revolting and admirable. The answers that cluttered the earlier chapters are replaced with questions, as Annis is visited by voices: the spirits of the land, the river and a presiding presence who seems connected with Annis’s grandmother, an African warrior. And there is a genuinely exciting escalation of action and struggle toward the end.
Let Us Descend – the title, from Dante’s Inferno, reflects the hell its characters experience – doesn’t break new ground in fiction about slavery (unlike Morrison’s Beloved, Butler’s Kindred or Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad). But it’s the internal journey of Annis that makes it in the end worthwhile, as she matures, from suffering the weapon of her mother’s hand to developing her own resourcefulness and strength. “I am the weapon.”
Source : The Guardian