This novel has won high praise from many critics and has appeared on the shortlists of a number of literary awards. These accolades are understandable given that the book is a debut work.
Covering about 250 years from the mid-18th century to the turn of the 21st, this is the story of two half-sisters unknown to each other and of the six generations that follow. Effia stays in Ghana but Esi is captured by raiders and shipped to America as a slave. The separated sisters are “’like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond’” (39). Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effia or Esi, one for each successive generation.
The book explores the impact of slavery which is felt for generations. The impact on Esi’s family for generations is obvious, but the effects of slavery are also felt by those who remain in Africa. Even after the slave trade is abolished, one of Effia’s descendants is told, “’There’s more at stake here than just slavery . . . It’s a question of who will own the land, the people, the power. You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood’” (93). The arrival of the white man sows enmity amongst the tribes. The Asante and Fante are both Akan people, but they end up as enemies. Another of Effia’s descendants is told by his mother, “’Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes . . . When someone does wrong . . . it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal’” (242).
Gyasi suggests that no one involved in the slave trade is innocent: “’Asante traders would bring in their captives. Fante, Ewe, or Ga middlemen would hold them, then sell them to the British or the Dutch or whoever was paying the most at the time. Everyone was responsible. We all were . . . we all are’” (142). Effia’s great-great-great-grandson is told that “’sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home’” (242). At his grandmother’s funeral, James, Effia’s grandson, a Fante, is confronted by an Asante girl who refuses to shake his hand, stating that she will not shake the hand of a slaver. James wonders, “Who was she to decide what a slaver was? James had spent his whole life listening to his parents argue about who was better, Asante or Fante, but the matter could never come down to slaves. The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them. If the girl could not shake his hand, then surely she could never touch her own” (96).
Of course, how much choice did the Fante and Asante actually have? And, of course, none of this excuses the white man “who had come to the Gold Coast seeking slaves and gold however he could get them. Whether he stole, whether he lied, whether he promised alliance to the Fantes and power to the Asantes, the white man always found a way to get what he wanted. . . . The white man . . . they called Abro Ni, wicked one, for all the trouble he had caused” (140).
A couple of Gyasi’s characters explain what she is trying to do in the novel. Yaw, a history teacher, tells his students that the one who has the power “’gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture’” (226 – 227). Gyasi wants to tell the story of the suppressed voices. The last of Esi’s descendants is researching African American history; “what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that . . . everyone . . . existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it” (295 – 296). This seems what Gyasi wants us to remember – we are inside the consequences of slavery.
My problem with the novel is that it is difficult to become connected to all of the 14 characters whose stories are told. The sheer number means that each has only a limited number of pages in the 300-page book. The characters who live in the United States often seem more like representatives of a historical period than like real people. Ness is a slave; Kojo is impacted by the Fugitive Slave Law; H suffers the hardships of Jim Crow South; Willie takes part in the Great Migration; Carson embodies everything about 1960s Harlem. I felt as if I were getting a history lesson which took me through major historical events rather than a story which brought me into the lives of characters. Perhaps Gyasi tried to do too much in one book?
Though not flawless, this is a very good book which deserves its many accolades.