Book number 15: Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna
Country: Sierra Leone
I’m getting the feeling that African writers write either stories about people or stories about countries. This one is about people. Londoner Abie receives an unexpected letter from her cousin in Africa, informing her that the family coffee plantation, Rofathane, is hers if she wants it. Abie proceeds to undertake a journey to Africa, travelling not only across oceans but also wandering across time and through the souls of her four aunts, recounting their personal stories as she goes, weaving a tapestry that vividly depicts how the events in each of her aunts’ lives shaped their personalities and minds and recalls Abie’s own cultural heritage.
There are many themes running through this novel. The ones that struck me most were woman-to-woman relationships (mothers and daughters, co-wives, belly sisters and half-sisters) and the strong reminders throughout the stories told by each woman that a person is much more than the face they present to the world; people are shaped by their circumstances, the other people they come into contact with, the events they experience, the things they see. The women recount their stories in turn, one after the other, representing their lives in memories. Asana speaks first, then Mariama (Mary), followed by Hawa and finally Serah, before Asana begins again.
“Asana, daughter of Ya Namina, my grandfather’s senior wife: a magnificent hauteur flowed like river water from the mother’s veins through the daughter’s. Gentle Mary, from whom foolish children ran in fright, but who braided my hair, cared for me like I was her own and talked of the sea and the stars. Hawa, whose face wore the same expression I remembered from my childhood – of disappointment already foretold. Not even a smile to greet me. Enough of her. And Serah, belly sister of my father, who spoke to me in a way no other adult ever had, as though I might one day become her equal.”
Abie’s initial impressions of her four aunts upon her arrival in Africa are challenged throughout the novel. Hawa’s character left the deepest impression upon me after I finished reading; commonly perceived by her fellow wives as being very negative and pessimistic and generally unpleasant to be around, Hawa’s accounts of her life demonstrate that looking at the same thing from various angles can lead to very different conclusions. As Hawa explains, “This is what I think about luck. Luck is like adjoining pools of water, each flowing into the other. One pool might be dry, the next pool overflowing. It’s the same with luck. Some people have everything. Other people have nothing. The people who have plenty just seem to get it all, all the luck that ought by rights to belong to someone else. That’s the way it was with me. Always the luck just seems to drain out of my pool and into somebody else’s.” Hawa had never been able to hold onto anyone she loved. Her mother died while she was a child; her husbands either died or ran off with a younger woman, leaving her to fend for herself; her son left Africa for America and was not heard from again.
I’ve explained the concept of the story very clumsily here and have utterly failed to do the novel and the writing any justice whatsoever, but I found this book absolutely compelling and hard to put down. Each woman has a different voice and a different impression to give of Africa and culture in Sierra Leone. Reading this book was one of those times when, as I was approaching the final few pages, I found myself wishing fervently that there was some more of it!