This eight generation family story begins with two half sisters, born into different villages in 17th c Africa, the area which later became Ghana. From the slave trading Gold Coast of Africa to America’s Southern plantations, through the Civil War, and eventually to Harlem, each chapter tells the story of the next descendent in these two family lines, where first generation Effia, of the Fante, marries a British trader of captured and enslaved people, and her half sister Esi, of the Asante, is captured and taken to the same castle on the shore where Effia lives in the grand rooms while Esi is locked in the dungeon. This sets the story in motion, and though the half sisters never meet, their descendants eventually do, though not for many generations. The stories, each focused on one member of the next generation, are heartbreaking, but also felt too short. I felt I was just beginning to understand the life of each character when that story ended, and we are abruptly thrust ahead to the next generation of the other side of the family. And the stories set in West Africa, with a lyrical and brutal voice, had much more power than those set in America, where sometimes the language seemed too contemporary or unfitting for the time and scene.
While I appreciate the longevity of pulling the reader through each generation, it felt like the scope was too much. I’m left with impressions and feelings, but I won’t remember the characters individually because there were so many, and each too fleeting to fully understand. Yet each story feels too important to forget. This is an ambitious debut novel (perhaps too ambitious?) that won several awards, but it seemed to need more than its 300 pages to be fully fleshed out.