“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who 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.”
this is a shockingly good debut novel.
it’s more accurately classified as a novel-in-stories, although there is a strong connective thread binding them together. it opens in the eighteenth century with the story of effia, followed by the story of esi. these women are half-sisters who have never met, born to the same mother into different villages and different tribes in ghana. effia marries an english slave trader while esi is herself sold into slavery. the rest of the book travels the bloodlines of these two women through time; in alternating chapters, we are presented with the perspectives of each subsequent generation born to the sisters, climbing the family tree for about 300 years and six generations, which means that after the initial story of each sister, there are twelve different POV chapters, each telling a new character’s standalone story.
in about 300 pages.
and i knew this about the structure from reading other reviews of the book, but by the time i finally read this myself (thanks for the push, alex!), i’d forgotten this fact, and i kind of wish i hadn’t. it’s not that she doesn’t pull off the feat very well, because she absolutely does, but i kept wanting to return to certain characters, and, of course, it never does. it’s not a bad thing, to be so intrigued by a particular character that you’re left wanting more, but with each chapter, you’re uprooted out of a storyline, in some places at a very tense moment, and you need to take a moment to process what you’ve just read before bracing yourself for what might come next. because chances are, there will be more horrors ahead. considering the struggles and brutality these characters often faced, my complaints are pretty damn trivial; if the worst thing that happens to you all day is boo-hooing over readerly dislocation, you’re having a good day.
and reading this book will make your day better. not in the sense that it will leave you with fuzzy feelings of how wonderful the world is and has always been, because this book is filled with death, horrors, violence, and it can get very brutal in its descriptions. this is 250 years of african history after all, and between the slave trade, the journey to america, the conditions of slaves in the new world, etc etc on to more contemporary and insidious forms of racism and violence, it’s not an easy read, emotionally. but it will make your day better to know that there’s a powerful new voice out there, telling important stories with truly captivating, transportative, effortless grace – it’s exciting to read something that engages the mind and the emotions and makes you want more, especially in a debut. and it’s a really gripping overview of a history made up of those “suppressed voices,” told in vignettes that cover a lot; providing that clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.
the only thing preventing this from earning a full five-
star cat celebration is that some of the characters, especially in the more contemporary times, were not as interesting to me as previous generations, and some were altogether forgettable, even though her writing remained strong and fluid throughout, so it’s never a drag to read. and i definitely loved marjorie.
Marjorie wondered if she was in love. How could she know? How did anyone know? In middle school she had been into Victorian literature, the sweeping romance of it. Every character in those books was hopelessly in love. All the men were wooing, all the women being wooed. It was easier to see what love looked like then, the embarrassingly grand, unabashed emotion of it. Now, did it look like sitting in a Camry sipping whiskey?
the quickchange POV’s sometimes forced me to refer to the family tree in the front, to remind me which a to b to c this character’s line was on. it’s easy enough to remember if you’re on effia or esi’s line, and to remember the generation just before each story, but when you get to the point where you have to remember 4, 5 generations back, when it’s alternating between the two lines, it can get a bit blurry. not that that’s necessary to understand or appreciate the book – it was just for my own needs, because i like to trace storylines and look for patterns, echoes, repetition. but warning – looking at the family tree is kind of spoilery because you know who’s going to hook up with whom, and you know that they won’t die before they breed. after that, though – no promises.
it’s always invigorating to come across a particularly strong debut novel; to know that this author is likely to get even better over the course of their career. i cannot wait to see what she writes next, because this was such an intense and beautifully-written book. i’d earmarked a ton of quotes that i wanted to share and discuss, but they don’t seem quite right now, excised from their surrounding narrative. so you’ll have to discover them yourself, in the course of reading this book, and i’ll just leave you with the passage that hints at the book’s title:
“One day, I came to these waters and I could feel the spirits of our ancestors calling to me. Some were free, and they spoke to me from the sand, but some others were trapped deep, deep, deep in the water so that I had to wade out to hear their voices. I waded out so far the water almost took me down to meet those spirits that were trapped so deep in the sea that they would never be free. When they were living they had not known where they came from, and so dead, they did not know how to get to dry land. I put you in here so that if your spirit ever wandered, you would know where home was.”
Marjorie nodded as her grandmother took her hand and walked her farther and farther out into the water. It was their summer ritual, her grandmother reminding her how to come home.
and i also want to take a second to plug one of my favorite books of all time, one that also covers african complicity/involvement in the slave trade and its horrors: The Book of Night Women. it’s jamaica, not ghana, and it’s even more brutal than this one, but it also has one of the best characters ever written and it left me with the same feeling of discovering a new writer as this one did. and marlon james went on to win the man booker, so i’m wishing the same success to gyasi.