Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna

24/06/06, The Times

First, there is the appallingly New Age-y title, Ancestor Stones, something that could have come straight from the pen of those drivel-pedlars, Ben Okri or Paulo Coelho. Then there is the nobly stodgy and very tired project of reclaiming history through the untold, unheard stories of women. Finally, there is the pulling-out-all-the-stops-playing on the instrument called Foreign Exoticism. A cursory glance at Aminatta Forna’s first novel fills you with the same expectation you would harbour for the next express train as you are lying bound and trussed on the tracks.

But let not that cursory glance deceive. She takes all those fears and blows them to the four winds. Forna burst on to the literary scene as a formidable writer with her first book, The Devil that Danced on the Water, a memoir trying to come to grips with the murder of her father in Sierra Leone when she was 10. Ancestor Stones, her first novel, anatomises the descent into hell of her country of birth, Sierra Leone – the name is never mentioned – through the private voices and stories of four women of the Kholifa family. Asana, Mariama, Hawa and Serah are daughters of four of the eleven wives of Gibril Umaru Kholifa and Forna follows their staggered stories for three-quarters of a century, creating in the process a uniquely inflected and personal history of Sierra Leone. At the heart of all fiction is not so much verifiable, evidential fact of the archives as stories, lies; Forna believes that fiction is a way of arriving at truth through these lies and fabrication. The truth she holds up in the book is as powerful as the most rigorous of fact-churning history books.

For 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. Asana, daughter of chief wife, Namina, with whom she has a tense, complicated relationship, embarks on a terrible marriage but manages to escape and throw off the shackles of male dominance in a society not marked for such shows of independence. Mariama, visionary, not-quite-of-this-world, has watched her mother ostracised by her husband for failing to conform to the monolithic Islamism disseminated by the fanatic Haidera Kontorfili and this has marked her introspective, spiritual personality. Hawa, daughter of the favourite sixth wife, sees her mother become the victim of petty domestic politics and after her death, becomes a twisted, manipulative creature in order to wrest back from the world what she thinks is her due. Finally, there is Serah, daughter of adulteress Saffie who is unable to pay back her bride price and has to leave her husband’s home. Serah and her ‘belly brother’, Yaya, are brought up by the other wives and in time Serah’s life becomes most closely involved in the faltering and failed steps towards democracy in her country.

In the trajectories of these lives, marked by betrayal, tragedy, 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 war-ravaged country to its appropriate place in fiction, thus arguing for the emotional truth of a different kind of history, one made up of stories that never make it to the officialdom of the history tome.

It is a shame, then, that these four different voices all sound the same, each undistinguished from the other, so much so that the reader keeps losing track of the individual stories and has to keep turning the pages to be reminded of the details of the particular narrator. And the novels’s frame creaks badly: the conceit of these four women telling their stories to their niece Abie when she journeys to her family coffee plantation from her home in England, is a clumsy, unconvincing device, an excuse to bind the stories together. But at her best, Forna is capable of a prose of soaring beauty and of a magical appositeness of metaphor. ‘Behind them flowed pale green waters, laced by mangroves, embroidered with water lilies: a river like a woman’s sleeve’. ‘Emma … weav[ed] in and out of a crowd like a needle through silk, and me a thread trailing behind her’. Of the first elections in the country, where the people were allowed to vote but the government was actually run by the British, Forna writes dryly, ‘They [the British] gave us the cow but kept hold of the tether’. Felicities such as these dot every page. Didn’t a book of this calibre deserve a better title?