The Spirits Talk Back

A Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Let Us Descend

By Wes Byers

It started with a few drops of rain. As my wife and I, along with a friend, waited in the packed audience in the courtyard of Baldwin Books in New Orleans for Jesmyn Ward to take the stage, we saw one or two umbrellas begin to sprout from the crowd. For those of us (which was most of us) who didn’t check the weather, we squirmed in our seats and braced for a downpour. If it were anyone else taking the stage, our crew might have checked out early, escaping to the dry safety of our car wedged among several others along Esplanade Avenue. But missing out on seeing Jesmyn Ward was unconscionable—for us and apparently the rest of the crowd, all of whom seemed determined to hang around despite the threat of a torrential downpour.

When I first heard Ward would be stopping in New Orleans on her book tour for Let Us Descend, her fourth novel, released in October 2023 from Simon & Schuster, I knew I had to go. I had been blown away by a reading Ward did in Portland at the AWP conference back in 2019, so I already had high expectations. Moreover, this event in New Orleans was promising for several other reasons: it took place at one of the best bookstores in the city, it was on her home turf (well, she works in the city at Tulane but lives in Mississippi), and she was to be in conversation with Kiese Laymon, another great writer and a personal favorite.

As the rain slackened after reaching what seemed its crescendo, Ward and Laymon took the stage. They talked about life in Mississippi, about the immense pressure of writing a novel depicting slavery, of loss, grief, and spirituality—all while the lightest rain fell. By that time, of course, none of us cared that we had gotten a little damp. Something was in the air, and that ineffable quality—Lord knows I have much to learn before I can give it a name—had something to do with Jesmyn Ward and her storytelling.

Jesmyn Ward is a singular voice. I can write that sentence without cringing at the platitude because I know it’s as close as I can come to describing the impression her work has left on me—as a writer, reader, and citizen of the world, as it were. I am not alone in my appreciation of Ward’s fiction, of course, as evidenced by the impressive list of honors she’s received, which include a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and two National Book Awards. Most recently, Let Us Descend was a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. She gets credit, to be sure. And certainly, there is more to come.

Indeed, it is likely her latest effort will only add to the pile of accolades—and with good reason. The plot of Let Us Descend is alone enough to intrigue any reader willing to brave the harrowing depths of the United States’ difficult history of chattel slavery. The novel is a Dantean journey from North Carolina to a Louisiana plantation, where the novel’s protagonist, Annis, reckons with advice from a spirit, called Aza, who may or not be misleading her.

The novel is undoubtedly her most ambitious work to date. In her conversation with Kiese Laymon in New Orleans, she acknowledged that writing a novel about slavery positions her to be compared to literary giants like Toni Morrison, a prospect that she admits frightens her. Certainly, no writer wants the burden of being compared to the likes of Morrison; however, if one contemporary writer can hold her own in such a conversation, it is most certainly Jesmyn Ward.

Let Us Descend is slightly more difficult than her previous works, though I would argue that this represents a writer coming into her own. The narrative she weaves is at points indistinct. Casual readers will certainly find themselves occasionally lost in different timelines. They might wonder who is who: who is a bodiless spirit, who is a person in the more material world, and who is a spirit that was once a person in the material world. Like Morrison, though, any haziness to be found in Let Us Descend feels entirely deliberate. As with Morrison’s opus Beloved, the fractured narrative in Let Us Descend seems to pattern itself on traumatic remembering, a notable theme in Ward’s work.

There are, in fact, a few themes that Ward’s large (and growing) number of fans will recognize in her latest work. Like Ward’s 2017 novel, the breathtaking Sing, Unburied, Sing, which earned her one of her National Book Awards, Let Us Descend is quite serious in its treatment of the spiritual world. The spirits in the novel are not metaphors; they are, on the contrary, characters with distinct agency, and they fly in the face of dominant epistemology. While this subject matter is by no means new in Ward’s fiction, the approach is somewhat different in Let Us Descend.

For instance, the ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing are, in some respects, rather spooky. This more conventional depiction, which hearkens to a long history of spooky ghost stories, is made more sophisticated by the counterpoint found in the character Riv’s spiritual practices (e.g., the gris-gris bag he gives to Jojo), which are by no means sensationalized. Instead, the spiritual practices depicted in Sing, Unburied, Sing are related as a reverent but otherwise practical part of life.

In Let Us Descend, Ward returns her attention to spirits and does so in a way that caters very little to readers’ own pre-conceived notions of what a spirit should and should not do, including existing. Aza, the most prominent spirit character in the novel, is not intended to frighten, at least not in the moaning, chain-rattling way of poltergeists or gothic ghosts of yore. Rather, we are to take Aza’s existence as a given and join Annis as she grieves, worries, pleads, and hopes that she can trust Aza’s guidance.

With some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read as of late, Let Us Descend deals with issues that are both complex and enduring: family, our relation to the natural world, life after death, and our ancestors. As a white man from North Carolina who now lives in New Orleans, where some of the novel’s most distressing action takes place, I was made to think again of my own ancestors, the histories of the places I’ve called home, and of my own place in the twenty-first-century United States. As with other narratives dealing with slavery, Let Us Descend will be tough for many readers. I can only speak to my experience with the novel, of course, but I imagine that other white Southern readers will share in the wide range of feelings the novel produced in me. I would submit, though, that the story of chattel slavery is not only a necessity for Southern readers, nor is it an exclusively Southern story. It is, rather, the story of the United States; it is the story of humanity at its most depraved and unfeeling. And this history is one in which we all share, in some form or another.

With that, I’m reminded of the feeling that wended through the air as I sat in the crowd at Baldwin Books and watched Jesmyn Ward discuss this powerful novel. Even now, I can’t help thinking that this feeling, charged though it was by the conversation’s tough themes, was shared by all in attendance. What was it? The spirit of a nation still trying to come to terms with its past? The spirit of a more hopeful future? Whatever it was, I can only say that it felt like the faintest whisper that, for the briefest moment, we all heard.

Wes Byers

Wes Byers is a New Orleans-based writer from the foothills of Western North Carolina. His work has appeared in the Southern Review of Books, Pembroke Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is on the fiction board at the New Orleans Review and teaches at the University of New Orleans.