Excerpt from Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Ancestor Stones

A Novel

by Aminatta Forna

Ancestor Stones
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 336 pages
    Sep 2007, 336 pages

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What would you do? You would go to them.

I sat up and shook my husband’s shoulder—my Portuguese Scottish husband—and I told him I was going away for a while.

And so there I was, standing in the forest among the women’s gardens, remembering my grandmothers. Beyond the trees their daughters were waiting for me. Four aunts. 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.

They were the ones whose presence filled the background to my childhood. Not my only aunts, by any means, rather my husbandless aunts. Asana, widow. Mary, spinster. Serah, divorcee. The fate of Hawa’s husband had never been quite clear, it remained something of a mystery. I had heard some of their stories before, though I didn’t remember who had told me or when. As a child I had spent my evenings at home doing schoolwork, or trying to get a picture on the black and white TV, as a teenager I’d lain in my room fiddling with my yellow transistor radio, waiting for my favourite tunes. Without men of their own to occupy them these four aunts had always been frequent visitors to my father’s house until he left to take up a series of appointments overseas and I followed in his slipstream to university.

Coming back, I thought about my aunts and all the things that had never been spoken. And I saw them for what they were, the mirror image of the things that go unsaid: all the things that go unasked.

The stories gathered here belong to them, though now they belong to me too, given to me to do with as I wish. Just as they gave me their father’s coffee plantation. Stories that started in one place and ended in another. Worn smooth and polished as pebbles from countless retellings. So that afterwards I thought maybe they had been planning it, waiting to tell me for a long time.

That day I walked away from the waiting women, into the trees and towards the water: the same river that further on curled around the houses, so the village lay within its embrace like a woman in the crook of her lover’s arm. Either side of the path the shadows huddled. Sharp grasses reached out to scratch my bare ankles. A caterpillar descended on an invisible filament to twirl in front of my face, as if surveying me from every angle before hoisting itself upwards through the air. A sucker smeared my face with something sticky and unknown. I paused to wipe my cheek in front of a tall tree with waxy, elliptical leaves. Along the branches hung sleeping bats, like hundreds of swaddled babies. As I watched, a single bat shifted, unfurled a wing and enfolded its body ever more tightly. For a moment a single eye gleamed at me from within the darkness.

Here and there scarlet berries danced against the green. I reached through the cobwebs, careful of the stinging tree-ants, and plucked a pair. I pressed a fingernail into the flesh of a berry and held it to my nose. Coffee. The lost groves. All this had once been great avenues of trees.

And for a moment I found myself in a place that was neither the past nor the present, neither real nor unreal. Rothoron, my aunts called it. Probably you have been there yourself, whoever you are and wherever in the world you are reading this. Rothoron, the gossamer bridge suspended between sleep and wakefulness.

Excerpted from Ancestor Stones, (c) 2006 by Aminatta Forna. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.

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