The beginning of this novel, set in eighteenth century Ghana, follows two half sisters, Effia and Esi. The two women are born into two different villages, and consequently one is married off to a rich, slave-owning Englishman, and one is sold into the slave trade under which she is shipped off to America. From here we follow the two sisters’ families through the generations; one thread shows Effia’s descendants in Ghana struggle with the slave trade and British colonisation, and the other shows Esi’s descendants in America raised in slavery, right through to modern day. This novel is massive in scope, and incredibly beautiful and hard-hitting in the stories it tells. This, for me, was a tremendous reading experience (also, how stunning is that cover design?).
The structure of this novel was unique and incredibly enjoyable to follow; every chapter focused in on a new character in the succeeding generation, alternating between Effia and Essie’s family trees. Knowing how the novel was structured before reading made me slightly apprehensive, as I was worried I would not get to know the characters enough for my liking. This was never a problem, however; it never felt like the author was skipping through things too fast, and I felt each chapter was perfect in terms of length and depth. The structure was perfect for what the story was trying to achieve, in portraying different generations, and giving a real sense of the different people born into these different circumstances. Moreover, I enjoyed the more historical chapters and the more modern chapters equally, and I did not find myself bored whilst reading any.
The locations in which this novel was set were fascinating to me. I did not know much about African history before I read this novel, and I felt it really gave me a sense of Ghanaian culture and taught me many things about it that I did not know before. The side of the family that ended up in America was also extremely interesting; I got glimpses of slave plantations in the South, the Civil War, coal mines in Alabama, and jazz clubs and dope houses in Harlem. Every one of these aspects were exquisite and beautifully explored, and I really appreciated reading about all of them.
While the story did not dwell on any single individual story line for long, and there was so many characters introduced throughout, I was truly invested and interested in all of the different character’s fates; I really sympathised with each of their circumstances and the trials that they faced. The impact that the slave trade had in reverberating through generations, and the way it determined to some extent the fate of the individuals through their specific placement in time was fascinating, and Yaa Gyasi dealt with this with unflinching boldness. The author also effectively and believably explored familial relations, in all different forms, which was a particular highlight for me.
Yaa Gyasi really takes you on a breathtaking journey through this novel, and you witness so much. Not only was reading about all the different generations fascinating, I also met many unforgettable characters, and became emotionally invested in their lives. This novel is beautiful and incredibly insightful, and I am extremely impressed by how much Yaa Gyasi has achieved.