I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed this book. It was worth reading, and I learned a lot, but I was glad to reach the end. An epic spanning several generations under slavery and beyond, the narrative begins in the Gold Coast in the 18th century with the stories of two half-sisters and follows subsequent generations to the present day. Their descendants are sold or born into slavery, to be beaten, starved and worked to death on cotton plantations and in coal mines in the American South. Brutal histories are inscribed in the physical damage of whips, burns, coal dust-filled lungs and disfigured bodies, and equally in the mental damage of nightmares, addiction, undying hatred, madness. Through the generations we see not just the horrors endured by individuals, but the enduring toxic legacy of slavery for families, communities, cities, states, whole countries – all of which Yaa Gyasi conveys memorably.
Each chapter is devoted to an individual character’s story, which connect down centuries and across continents. Depicting a huge complex historical narrative through the stories of a few individuals is a wise choice. It works if the characters come alive, but Gyasi’s characters don’t always. Some feel like walking history lessons, increasingly more so throughout the book, in fact. This points to the book’s deeper flaw; it tries to cover too much, and falters under the sheer weight of it all. It’s material that needs greater emotional depth, descriptive richness and narrative dynamic to elevate it above the worthy. Kudos to the author for a big ambitious debut on such huge subject matter, but as a work of fiction, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.