I rarely buy new releases because I don’t like hardbacks, or reading in the midst of hype, but I couldn’t resist this one. And it’s true what everyone’s saying – it’s a book that actually does live up to the hype.
In 18th century west Africa, in what’s now Ghana, Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never meet. Effia is made to be a white British slave trader’s wife, while Esi is sold into slavery and eventually shipped to the US. The book follows the next six generations of their families in Ghana and the US, right up to the present day, and explores how the trauma of slavery, colonialism and racism can run through.
Each chapter focuses on one descendant of each side of the family, alternating between Effia’s and Esi’s family. (A family tree is printed at the beginning of the book which is really helpful to check each time you pick up the book to remember which side of the family you’re reading about). The novel is almost an interlinked short story collection, but it becomes a novel because part of what it’s about is that thread between them – the ‘zooming out’ and seeing the whole.
Though a couple of the later chapters are a little less skillful, what Gyasi manages to do with only about twenty pages for each character vignette is incredible. As well as creating a connection between the reader and all fourteen main characters, she weaves in so much history of each time period, but in a way that never feels too expositional. Each chapter is also its own love story, though not always a happy one, as we see how the next generation came to be. Gyasi also doesn’t turn away from violence or horror, but it’s never gratuitous or romanticised.
And it’s so damn readable. The writing has moments of beauty but is mostly fairly stripped back, which works really well with the structure because complicated, less accessible writing together with a complex structure would have been too much, and the novel would have become style over substance. As it stands, it gets to be both.
It’s not a perfect novel. The earlier chapters felt richer than the later ones, and the very end was far too neat and contrived (I don’t believe Marjorie would have given the *spoiler* to *spoiler* because of what her *spoiler* meant to her).
BUT. But. This is a very readable, interesting, and important read that I’d urge you to pick up. It’s only Gyasi’s debut novel, so I can’t wait to see what she writes next.