‘Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’
This story starts in eighteenth century Ghana, with two sisters born to different mothers in different villages. Effia and Esi lead very different lives and will never know each other. Effia is selected as wife to an Englishman and lives a life of privilege in Cape Coast Castle. In the dungeons beneath, her sister Esi is, with thousands of others, destined for slavery in America.
From these two lives, we follow the impacts of slavery and British colonisation in Ghana, and the path of slavery and its aftermath in America. One thread follows the lives of Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana as the Asante and Fante nations wrestle with colonisation and the slave trade. The other thread follows Esi and her descendants into America.
Effia and Esi are the pivotal characters, and the ones to which I felt most connected. As the story passes from one generation to the next, I had to keep referring to the family tree at the front of the book to keep the characters clear. I know little Ghanaian history. While the characters inhabiting those chapters of the story gave me some appreciation of conflicts, issues, and the effects of British colonisation, I need (and want) to read more. With the characters in America, I felt on more familiar historical ground. And yet, while the history is important, it is the stories of the individuals that makes this novel shine. Disadvantage becomes real through the eyes of Yaa Gyasi’s characters, as does the sense of dislocation. Where (and how) do people fit when their family ties are disrupted or destroyed, when colour defines place? How do nations evolve when slavery is part of their history? Both Ghana and America are shaped by this history as are the individuals.
This novel took me into some uncomfortable places and made me think about belonging and about the impact of dislocation. I am ambivalent about the ending, but every fiction must end somewhere.
‘We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there.’