Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, which was first published in the United States to great acclaim in June last year, is a work of extraordinary ambition. In only three hundred pages, Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and brought up in Hunstville, Alabama, aims to retell the history of African-American experience, from enslavement in 18th-century west Africa to the present day. On opening the book, the reader is invited to consider a strangely shaped family tree, before being presented with fourteen unnumbered chapters named after characters from the tree (Ness, Abena, James, Koko and so on). The novel begins with the stories of two sisters, Effia and Esi, who are separated in Africa, then traces the lives of members of subsequent generations as they follow different paths.
The chapters are mini-histories in fictional form, taking in tales of life in Africa, sale to slave traders, the plantations in the American South, the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act (which required citizens of the northern states to seek out runaway slaves from the South), the contracting out of