**** = four stars
WHY I CHOSE IT: A colleague gave me her copy of this book. When I saw an endorsement by Zadie Smith, once of my favourite authors, on the back cover, I knew I’d enjoy it.
THE PLOT: The novel begins with Effia and Esi, two sisters in the eighteenth century Gold Coast (now Ghana). They are unaware that they have the same mother and end up with Effia living in the British fort, a slave trader’s local wife, and Esi living below in the fort dungeons, bound for the Americas. This book is unique because a different character narrates each chapter, and they are the descendants of Effia and Esi through the ages. From the slave plantations of Mississippi to the dive bars of Harlem, the novel is a masterpiece in its construction.
MY RATING: The idea and style of this novel is very successful. I particularly liked how it depicted the legacy of slavery in numerous different ways, as each character was affected differently. Although there were times I had to double check who was related to whom (and how), I felt the multiple POV’s worked well and enhanced the narrative.
A key theme that made an impression on me is ‘travel’. Once Esi is transported to the Americas, none of her descendants travel outside of the U.S. In the media, it’s common to see the representation of the first African American in their family to travel outside the U.S. or go to college. This ‘first in my family’ trope, which we see in film and TV, is explained through this novel, which breaks down the decades of systematic racism and abuse. In the novel, the reader sees how it would have been impossible for Esi’s descendants to break out of their situation, even once slavery was abolished.
My main criticism was how Effia’s descendants seemed to take a back seat to Esi’s. The dual storylines didn’t feel equally weighted. Of course, Esi’s story line had more complex action – transportation into slavery, emancipation, jim crow, civil rights etc. However, this meant that Effia’s descendants were struggling to keep up with the dynamism in the other storyline. The mixed race struggles of Quey and James were interesting, as they navigated their dual heritage of slave-trader and African. However, it felt like the pace really slowed with Akua and Abeena, particularly as the story took a dark and slightly fantastical turn. I felt the sudden decision by Yaw to emigrate to the US, and his daughter Majorie returning to Ghana on holiday sought to remedy this. However, the reader never see’s Yaw’s decision to leave so it feels a bit clumsy.
FAVOURITE QUOTE: “They had a different word for African Americans. Akata. Akata people were different from Ghanians, too long gone from the mother continent to continue calling it the mother continent. She could feel herself being pulled away too, almost akata, too long from Ghana to be Ghanaian.” P273