Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel is an ambitious one. It charts the lives of two half-sisters from Ghana who have very different experiences of slavery. The book sets off in the 18th century and follows the descendants of each sister to see how slavery impacted on African women depending on the form their slavery took.
Effia is the ‘lucky’ sister. Her enslavement is as wench to the governor of Cape Coast Castle on Ghana’s Gold Coast. She’s a surrogate wife, the governor’s real wife being back in England. She’s sold to the governor and enters into a relationship with him that is conflicted, because neither party can acknowledge the truth of how they feel about each other. Effia understands her situation as being a route to survival. Although it’s insecure, wench to the governor is a position of relative privilege.
Esi has less luck. She’s captured in a raid on her village and held in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle. She comes to the attention of the governor when he’s choosing women to load onto the slave ships bound for America. Gyasi doesn’t spell it out, but makes it clear that the governor finds something familiar in Esi’s appearance.
Gyasi’s descriptions of how the British treated the African women they traded in were necessarily chilling. Slavery is a huge subject, a crime that stains all of recent history and our current lives. It is a difficult subject to condense into a 320 page novel. In the opening pair of chapters, I would have appreciated more depth. This is a book about how people experience the world through acts perpetrated against them, and in particular how African women and men experience the world as a result of slavery. I think Gyasi was trying to get across the sense that Effia and Esi didn’t fully understand what was happening to them, but for me the narrative came across as being a little trite.
Following on from that opening pair of scene-setting chapters, the narrative alternates between descendants of each sister, bringing the consequences of each woman’s enslavement forward to the present day. One lineage comes down through Effia’s relative privilege, the other through Esi’s struggle to remain a person, not a chattel. This structure left the novel bitty, more like a series of short stories, and I didn’t feel like I could fully connect with any of the characters. It felt like the story needed more continuity of characters to have a better flow. Instead, the continuity came through a pendant. Perhaps because I read a series of stories about a time travelling locket that was present at key disasters in history when I was 12 or 13, this motif felt a little immature to me.
Other things felt immature, too. The couple of paragraphs at the start of each chapter used to quickly explain the intervening years that have passed. The tick-box feel to Gyasi’s attempts to cover all of the key factors of the slave trade and their trickle down historical effects. Sometimes the exposition felt crudely applied.
Across the book, Gyasi raises questions about how complicit some West African peoples were in the slave trade. The Asante raided villages to gather up people at the start of the supply chain, and the Fante acted as merchants in negotiating with the British to move the human goods on. Effia is the daughter of an Asante woman raised as a Fante by her father’s wife and sold by her to the British. Esi is an Asante woman captured by the Fante and sold by them into slavery. Their descendants take particular positions as a result of their perceived heritage, and are unaware of the deeper back story to their lives. Gyasi seems to want the reader to think about the contradictions while observing characters who don’t hold all the facts. I don’t know if she fully succeeded.
I think I wanted the book to be more powerful. It’s a strong idea and, as I say, an ambitious one. I don’t think the execution quite matched the ambition and, in a book that I was excited about reading, that was disappointing.
There were some chapters that I thought worked better than others. The exploration of life in Africa at the start of the slave chain, the way the Asante and Fante people tried to retain their identity and their way of life in the face of British and Dutch colonisation, was well written. Abena and Akua’s stories were particularly compelling. I found the African-American side of the narrative more like a primer of key points in the history of the Black experience in America. It hit the right issues but it felt quite tame. I did appreciate the story of Willie and Robert in Harlem, perhaps because of the changing dynamic between the couple, as Robert trades on the lightness of his skin to pass as white and keeps his black wife hidden. They felt more real as people than those who had gone before them in the story.
Perhaps it’s a book that will open some readers’ eyes and minds to the struggle Black America and post-colonial Africa has had as a result of white oppression.