The title of two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s haunting new novel, Let Us Descend, is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, the 14th century epic poem about a journey through hell. Ward drops her protagonist, Annis, an enslaved girl, into hell on earth. After being sold off by the white enslaver who fathered her, Annis embarks on a treacherous, months-long journey from the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans. Ward describes Annis’ grueling march on the brink of starvation through the unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the Deep South in painstaking detail. The novel is at its most terrifying and enchanting when Annis is being tormented by an arrogant spirit known as Mama Aza, who has taken on the form of her late grandmother. The ghost puts Annis through a trial by fire, her own “circles of hell,” to prove that she is worthy of Mama Aza’s help. Let Us Descend is an unnerving story of reclamation that asks urgent questions about faith, family, and what it means to be free. —Shannon Carlin
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