Forna's first novel is told through the alternating stories of four
strong women that, in combination, powerfully capture the social and
political history of the small West African country of Sierra Leone through at
least 60 troubled years.
The story opens in 2003 with Abie, a young woman born and raised in Sierra Leone but now settled in London with her European husband and their children, opening a letter from her aunts informing her that they are giving her the family coffee plantation, and requesting that she return for a visit. It is not just the plantation they want to give her. On her return, the aunts share with Abie their own stories as if they were lifting "the past from their own shoulders" and handing it to her, so that she might continue to pass the stories through the generations.
My only criticism of this gorgeous, powerful book is that I found it difficult to distinguish between the voices of the four women, so instead of reading the book as a series of alternating short stories told by the various aunts, I simply skipped through reading all the stories by one woman, and then going back to the beginning to read about the next aunt - essentially turning the book into four interconnected novellas as opposed to sixteen interconnected short stories.
About the author
Ancestor Stones is Aminatta Forna's first work of fiction. Formerly a TV reporter and journalist she is also the author of Mother of All Myths (1998) and the memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water (2002) which told of her childhood growing up in Sierra Leone during the country's transition from democracy to dictatorship. In 1974, when she was ten years old, Siaka Stevens, President of Sierra Leone, sent militiamen to her family's house to arrest her father - a former doctor who had gone into politics as a member of Stevens' government, but resigned, having accused Stevens of corruption and cheating the World Bank, and formed an opposition party. Three years later he was arrested, convicted and hung, and his wife and children fled, eventually escaping to England.
One of the questions that troubled Forna was why it took 3 years from the time of her father's opposition to when he was arrested. As she pieced together the history of the country with her own family's history she realized that this was the time it had taken Stevens to systematically establish his dictatorship - emasculating the army, forcing the chief of police out, and establishing his own militia.
She returned to Sierra Leone in 2000 when a letter from her father was discovered. Just before he and eight others were due to be executed they were given an opportunity to write a letter pleading for clemency. Only her father and one other man refused and instead wrote a letter recording their views on the history and future of Sierra Leone - her father wrote prophetically of a country descending into anarchy. She also discovered that her father knew of his imminent arrest but had refused all chances of escape and that all the witnesses at his trial had been paid to testify against him.
When asked how her memoir was received by her family and in Sierra Leone she replied, "There are no bookshops in Sierra Leone. I have shipped some copies out myself, as the publishers have no interest out there. My family have been very supportive and realize that the importance of the story outweighs the importance of some of the less flattering representation of some people within it. My aim in writing it as a very personal account was to encourage people who would not normally be interested in African issues to read about the continent."
As an author she feels that it is her role to archive, flesh out, challenge and repossess history, giving conflicts character and giving a voice to the dead - a role she started with The Devil That Danced on the Water and continues in Ancestor Stones.
This review was originally published in September 2006, and has been updated for the September 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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