Ancestor Stones, a novel
Abie has followed the arc of a letter from London back to Africa, to the coffee groves of Kholifa Estates, the plantation formerly owned by her grandfather. It is a place she remembers from childhood and which now belongs to her—if she wants it.
Standing among the ruined groves she strains to hear the sound of the past, but the 'layers of years' in between then and now are too many. So begins her gathering of the family's history through the tales of her aunts.
This is the story of four lives: Asana, Mariama, Hawa and Serah Kholifa, born to the different wives of a wealthy plantation owner in an Africa where change is just beginning to arrive. Asana, lost twin and head-wife's daughter. Hawa, motherless child and manipulator of her own misfortune. Mariama, who sees what lies beyond this world. And Serah, follower of a Western-made dream.
Stretching across generations and set against the backdrop of a country's descent into freefall, Ancestor Stones is a stunning novel about understanding the past and how stories ancient and new shape who we've become, and one which offers a different way of seeing the world we share. It is the story of a nation, a family and four women's attempts quietly to alter the course of their own destiny.
Awards and Honors
Ancestor Stones was winner of the Hurston Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, the Liberaturpreis in Germany and the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize, and was nominated for the International Dublin IMPAC Award. It was also a New York Times Editor's Choice book, selected by the Washington Post as one of the "Best Novels of 2006" and The Listener Magazine's "Best 10 Books of 2006."
Reviews and Praise for Ancestor Stones
"The jacket copy on Ancestor Stones suggests that this excellent novel resembles The Joy Luck Club. It doesn't, not really. Aminatta Forna seems here more like Isabel Allende at the height of her early, inspired, politically testifying powers. Forna sees clearly that in human life, the personal and the public are inextricably combined. What goes on in a country reflects what goes on inside its houses, and what goes on in its houses is a refraction of what occurs outside." — The Washington Post
"Forna creates through the voices of these wizened creatures, a richly patterned mosaic of African culture and history. Gorgeous and dreamlike." — Kirkus Reviews (Starred)
"Forna's skill [is] in laying out the world in which her characters move. On a voyage to Lagos, Asana describes "how the sea glowed with sparkling green lights that came from the deepest parts and lit up the sides of the ship." You can feel the intensity of the moment when Asana tells how her home was ransacked by rebel soldiers while she hid, hot and cramped, inside a large chest.
"'I listened as they slit the throats of my chickens and roasted them over the fire,' she recounts. Forna registers even the finest details, like 'the faint rasping noise of the hairs being cut, one by one,' when a servant shaves the mine manager's beard. Such moments are as treasured as the ancestor stones, used to divine the future, that one character cherishes so dearly." — Editor's Choice, The New York Times
"Unfolding in Forna's vivid, graceful prose like the bolts of brightly coloured cloth sold in Aunty Asana's fabric store, the aunts' stories are filled with plangent uncertainty of lives lived at the mercy of external events, subject both to everyday caprice—affairs of the heart and of business, the raising of children, the tending of the land, sickness and death—and to the political convulsions that begin far away, but then draw closer until the aunts themselves are touched by them.
"The act of survival is a triumph in such circumstances, and the act of storytelling both a small private rebellion and a duty. Their stories told, Abie notices that 'a certain giddiness had come over my aunts...They'd lifted the past from their own shoulders and handed it to me.' Forna's tender, haunting novel is a celebration of the enduring power of such private narratives." — The Sunday Telegraph
"Aminatta Forna is a writer of startling talent, as readers of her harrowing and brilliant memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, will attest. Ancestor Stones, a novel, is written in sumptuous prose which makes it a delight to read...Ancestor Stones has a purpose at once modest and grand: to record the history of a country through the stories of four half-sisters, beginning in the 1920's and ending in the present day... Some of the scenes have the clarity of reportage: an election day when the streets are silent, empty, empty because no-one dares venture out to vote; or a proud woman who uses the last of her money to save face, by buying extravagant sugar lumps. But though these things play a part in the four lives described here, they do not define them. People still dance and bathe in the river, fall in love and out again, raise children. Their stories and their secrets are both greater and smaller than the trouble they endure...The book leaves an impression of immense joyfulness, a sense of delight and wonder. Conveying the human spirit's irrepressible love of life is the triumph of this magical book." — The Daily Telegraph
"She tells stories as she breathes. The stories of these four women reel out and unspool with such effortless ease, such generosity of narrative spirit, that after putting down the book one feels one has inhabited their world and times....In the trajectories of these lives, marked by betrayal, occasional joy and above all, dogged survival, Forna finds the microcosm of her country's history. But that history never descends to the ticking off of facts or a spelling out of events that one might find in a textbook. Her restraint is such that she shows, never tells, keeps more hidden and untold than expressed. She moulds the politics of her country to its appropriate place in fiction, thus arguing for the emotional truth made up of stories that never make it to the officialdom of the history tome." — The Times
"Ancestor Stones is an optimistic, truthful novel and if we accept Ben Okri's notion of writers as 'the barometer of the vitality of the spirit of the nations,' then we should be optimistic about an indisputably talented young novelist and for the future of Africa, too." Times Literary Supplement
"Forna's strength is in invoking the menace of daily life under a corrupt regime. On election day, people are so frightened by soldiers no one walks the streets except the lunatics, 'dazed and smiling, unexpected lords of the city.'" The New Yorker
"Mesmeric, elegant prose...equally extraordinary and vibrant with sadness and joy...Forna beautifully describes the chafing confines and glorious freedoms of lives whose rich continuity is gradually being rent asunder." The Daily Mail
"It is easy, wry and wise, and Forna's focus is the way history maps memory. To unpick the past is not just to discover that there are incidents that have simply been lost but also that there are those that have been wilfully retold. Says Serah, remembering the star-shaped scar on her mother's shoulder: 'Once she told me a shooting star had landed there. Another time she said a firefly had settled on her and forgotten to put itself out first. The last time I had asked her, a few days before, she told me it was nothing: just a spark from a lively fire.' As in the novel and life itself, it's the romantic deceptions and delusions that dazzle and move as much as the reality." Literary Review
"This is a work of literature that reached as deeply into the being of a white male Anglo-Saxon card-carrying bloke as it would touch the heart of any woman...They meander through time, and dimension, these lovingly honed stories. Aunt Hawa's tale of childhood manipulation of adult superstition is subtle, delightful and more authentic than any Roald Dahl twist-in-the-tale...With this beautiful book she has revitalized the fading art of story-telling [and] has rekindled the dying embers of a much more precious art—that of listening." The Evening Standard
"A wonderfully ambitious novel written from the inside, opening up a particular society and delving deeply into the hearts, histories and minds of women." The Guardian
"Acclaimed memoirist Forna (The Devil that Danced on the Water) glides into fiction with this sweeping portrayal of the lives of five Sierra Leonian women." Publishers Weekly
"Here is a place where 'the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person's history is captured in the shape of an ear.' Forna's skill in this exuberantly imagined novel, which follows her acclaimed memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, lies in pressing such words and images between pages without dulling their spirit." The Observer
"Gripping...the book acts as a reminder that it is women who carry a family's history and pass it on—and that the apparently powerless have infinitely subtle ways of controlling their lives." The Big Issue
"Aminatta Forna's arresting narrative illustrates a quality peculiar to women's dialogue, in which conversation passes, with startling dexterity, from seemingly frivolous topics, like the experience of putting on a first pair of shoes, to incontestably profound ones, such as the violent repression of religious beliefs. In this way, each subject appears to exist dizzyingly on the same plane. Forna's choice of first-person monologues serves her story well, lending a swiftness and scope to her characters' reminiscences without ever straying from the novel's intimate tone...Her accomplished prose is often fluid, yet there are also passages in which the language crystallizes, as in Mary's haunting febrile description of her youthful breakdown in London—'How long ago, how faraway it had all seemed. The smell of the earth. The whiteness of the sun. The way night arrives like a thing unto itself, instead of the creeping darkness that comes to steal away the sunlight.' In these sections, Forna's prose, reminiscent of consummate stylists such as Jean Rhys, becomes condensed and palpitating, each word doing triple duty." Bookforum
"Forna finds in the recollections of these women a quiet humour and something a lesser writer might be tempted to describe as the resilience of the human spirit. It was indeed the spirits of individual women that were commemorated in the ancestor stones that gives the book its title. Until outlawed under the new, male-dominated religion, the stones were handed down from mother to daughter to be consulted in times of trouble. As a result of both the expectations and the limitations of the society in which they live, Forna's women endure life as much as enjoy it, but one is left with a cheering image of them in old age, survivors whose stones have been restored to them by the granddaughter who went away to become a writer." The Sunday Times
"A dazzling storyteller Aminatta Forna vividly evokes the daily lives of African women and their brave attempts to alter their destiny." Waterstone's Books Quarterly
"A magical tale of women, Africa, innocence and family that spans three generations. Aminatta Forna is a true storyteller, weaving this novel around the life experiences of four very different women. The unique structure of the novel reflects the simplicty of the themes explored and is reminiscent of traditional methods of storytelling. It is colourful and vibrant in its descriptions of the African environment in which it is set, and the reader actually feels part of the family's history. This book is a rare treat and a triumph in narrative style." —Editor's Choice, The Good Book Guide
"A beautifully written novel that makes the heat and colour and pain of these women's lives come alive." Irish Tatler
"Forna's colourful novel is a masterclass of modern writing, despite the fact that she draws on old traditions and ways of life, and through the vivid personal tales, she paints a national picture of a country that underwent major change during the 20th century....With characters weaving between the four women's stories but each personality clearly defined, Forna's is a beautifully constructed novel that merges voices from the past and present." The Works
"Beautiful novel by a great writer who always gives you a sense that you are eavesdropping on whispered conversations." The Daily Ireland
"Small details illuminate this unfamiliar culture and Forna carries us through her novel with an enviable knack for storytelling." Metro