Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- In speaking of her marriage, Asana states I learned about womenhow we
are made into the women we become, how we shape ourselves, how we shape each
other (p. 107). Using this quote as a springboard, begin your discussion by
considering the central role of women in the patriarchal society portrayed
in the novel. Is their crucial role something of a paradox? What are some of
the specific roles that women undertake? Throughout the novel we learn much
about the complex hierarchical system of marriage. How do the women support
each other and how do they undermine one another? Note that the word Ores
means both co-wife and rival.
- At the beginning of the novel Abie returns to her childhood home of
Rofathane from London and strains to hear the voices of the past, but the
layers of years in between us were too many (p. 10). What does she mean by
this? What is Abies role in the novel? Do you find her to be a satisfying
and fully fleshed character? Are the stories of the four sisters perhaps
more accessible when filtered through Abie?
- When Abie reads the letter she states that it is written in English,
but the words, the sensibility, was
Africa (p. 8). How far could this statement apply to
the whole novel? Think about the story that Abie tells at the beginning of
the novel about different ways of seeing. Consider also cultural differences
between the West and the African society depicted.
- One of the striking images in the first pages of the novel is of Gibril
Umaru Kholifas iron four-poster bed being carried by eight men through the
forest. How is the patriarch portrayed by his daughters? What are their
relationships, their memories of his public persona vs. his private moments?
Would you consider him a good father? How do the opinions of the sisters
regarding their father change as they mature, and as outside influences
enter their lives?
- What do the ancestor stones of the title represent? How do they fit in
with Asanas statement that there are many ways of looking at the same
thing (p. 236)? Consider how important they are to Marys mother. Explore
the importance of names in connection with the stones, and throughout the
rest of the novel, especially reflected in the character of Mary. What is
Marys given name and when is it changed, and changed back? Does she think
of herself as Mary? Why do you think she is referred to as Mary in the
- Told as a series of stories, this novel celebrates the oral tradition.
Whose work is this guarding of stories (p. 12) and why? Think of some of
the different ways in which stories are told and used throughout the novel,
from the scare-tactic tales of Asanas grandmother to rumor-mongering about
Serehs mother. Discuss the place of truth and memory in the telling of
stories. What story shall I tell? The story of how it really was, or the
one you want to hear? (p. 15).
- Consider the theme of silence as it runs through the stories. Recall why
Mary was banished from going to the womens meetings once she learned how to
talk. Can you think of instances in the novel where words once uttered
never die (p. 62) and loose talk causes dramatic upheavals in the sisters
lives? What about later in the book during the dangers of the civil war? How
does voting fit into the theme of silence? What is the role of Bobbio, the
boy with no voice?
- In many ways, Asana, daughter of Ya Namina, represents the old way of
life before the changes wrought by the twentieth century. What is her
relationship with her mother? Why does she head so blindly into her
disastrous marriage? How has Asanas opinion of her mother changed by the
end of the novel? What profound realization occurs when she catches sight of
her mother mourning, and what does it give Asana the strength to do?
- Mary says, We deserted our gods. . . . My mother would not yield. And
to this day nobody has ever come to me and said she was noble and righteous
to do so (p. 36). In what ways does Marys life reflect the seeming
desertion of the gods of her childhood? In which ways does she find comfort
in her early beliefs? Find examples of the blending of the old and the new
in Marys faith and practice of religion.
- Hawa seems to attract bad luck and indeed her life is filled with
unlucky events. In tracing the details of her misfortunes, do you see
patterns beginning to occur? How much of her misery does she make herself?
Think back to the best day of her life, the day every one of my fathers
wives wished she was my mother. And every one of his daughters wanted to be
me (p. 68). What do these feelings show about her character? When she says
about Khalil, I loved him so much I sacrificed my own happiness ( p. 191)
do you empathize with her or are you irritated by her actions? What about
when she waits in vain for her soldier son to visit?
- During her childhood, Sereh rejects her mother when she is accused of
adultery. I no longer wanted her for my mother (p. 101). As Sereh grows up
and makes her own mistakes in life, what is the irony of this rejection? At
what point does she realize how much she owes her mother and how alike they
are? Consider Serehs statement, I preferred to make my way alone than live
with unhappiness (p. 233), and discuss the ways she demonstrates this
independence throughout her life.
- Sereh is one of the new generation who left their country without
looking back at the old, only forward to the vision of the new (p. 214).
To what extent is Sereh able to leave her old way of life behind? How does
she find herself caught between two worlds? Consider her relationships with
Janneh and Ambrose. What do the red shoes represent? In the forty years that
pass between her two experiences as a returning officer at a voting station,
how has Sereh changed? How has
Africa changed? Are there reflections of the world
Sereh knew from her childhood in the tense atmosphere of the voting station?
Recall the women singing.
- As Asana says about Rofathane, change came slowly to this place (p.
121). Talk about examples of the way in which the western world started to
infiltrate the society of the village, from Asanas stories of the
moon-shadow man to the arrival of Mr. Blue and the mining companies. How did
the creep of colonialism affect the lives of the sisters?
- As the novel follows the sisters and they move beyond the reach of
Rofathane their family history becomes entwined with the history of a
nation. How has their childhood prepared them for this future? Do any of the
sisters surprise you with their actions? How much do you agree with Asanas
statement that her great-granddaughter had arrived in a world where
suddenly we were all lost, as helpless as newborns (p. 297)?
- Consider the ways in which the author forces the sisters to confront and
reflect on their own identities, and the ways in which they are viewed by
others. Why is this especially important to Marys story? Discuss her
England, the country with so
many mirrors (p. 206), where nobody looked me in the eye (p. 206). What
are her feelings when she returns home, and why? Why does she feel the need
to communicate her story to Abie? How does her story mirror the story of
- Toward the end of the novel Sereh says, Sometimes I think this is what
happened in our country. Nobody heeded the warnings, nobody smelled the rain
coming . . . until we were all engulfed by it (p. 264). Find instances from
the lives of the four women of this constant refusal to admit the truth. The
author often uses images of stopping up the senses to portray this
smothering of the truth: I plugged my ears with imaginary mud (p. 64) and
Sereh covering the smells of poverty with the scent of flowers (p. 225).
Discuss other examples.
- We were like a collection of differently coloured and shaped bottles
(p. 168), says Sereh of the various children raised by her grandmother. How
fitting a description of the upbringing of the sisters is this? How are the
sisters alike, how different? Do they become more or less alike as the novel
progresses? Discuss the role of parenting in general in the novel.
- At the end of the novel, Abie finds that she is no longer a stranger in
Rofathane, and says that in this small world everybody had a place (p.
314). Asana states that at Rofathane there existed an imperfect order. An
order we understood (p. 294). How much do you agree with this statement?
What are your feelings about the order that existed?
- How do the sisters make private acts of rebellion against the society of
their childhood? Are these conscious acts, or reflections of the changing
times they live in? Why do you think they all end up at Rothafane again?
- What is the effect of telling the stories with the added layer of
hindsight after a long passage of time? How accurate do you think the
details of the stories are, and does that matter to you? Can you think of
examples of how the women grapple with the effort to remember, or even
wonder whether they have the details right? What about clear images that
bring back a whole scene?
- Discuss the role of love and sexuality throughout the novel. Consider
the importance of the theme of fertility from the constant references to the
rainy season, to Hawas tubal ligation. Asana describes her sexual
initiation (removal of clitoris) as a special time in the company of
womenare you able to support or understand her viewpoint?
- Conclude your discussion of the novel by considering Asanas statement
I let it be known that I would consider relinquishing the birthright of
womanhood in exchange for the liberty of a man (p. 248). What does she mean
by this, and how does it resonate throughout the novel? Look back at the
question that started your discussion, perhaps, to fully understand the rich
complexity of the birthright of women. Do you think that Asanas was a good
decision to make?
Suggestions for further reading:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant; Falling Leaves by Adeline Mah;
Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala; The Poisonwood Bible by
Barbara Kingsolver; The Darling by Russell Banks; Season of Migration
to the North by Tayeb Salih; Admiring Silence by Abdulrazak Gurnah;
In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif
Reading guide created by Lindsey Tate, reproduced by permission of the
publisher, Grove Atlantic.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grove Press.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.