Ancestors Stones by Aminatta Forna

Posted on October 1, 2006


Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle:

It is 1956 in Sierra Leone. Serah, a teenager, volunteers to serve as an officer at a polling station during the presidential election. With an hour left to go, only “two votes lay in the cavern of the ballot box, like visitors in an empty church.” She decides to fill the box, using all of her fingers and toes to create fake thumbprints on ballots.

Forty years later she is an officer again. Soldiers surround her polling station to intimidate potential voters. At the end of the day, they demand the ballots, only to find that Serah and her fellow officer have padlocked themselves to the boxes. Before the soldiers can act, Serah’s brother zooms up in a car and drives the women (and the ballot boxes) to the vote-counting center. The women feel victorious; only later do they find out that their efforts were futile. On the other side of the country, the rebel army was slicing off the hands of people with purple thumbs as punishment for voting.

“Ancestor Stones,” Aminatta Forna’s first novel, collects the stories of four women in Sierra Leone — Asana, Mary, Hawa and Serah — over a century of intense political upheaval. Their lives encompass the country’s independence from Britain in 1961, several military coups and a decadelong civil war in the 1990s. Save for the setting and the ethnicity of the women, the framework is virtually identical to that of Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” In that novel, the women are Americans, the daughters and wife of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist who brings them to the Congo in the late 1950s to convert the inhabitants. In “Ancestor Stones,” the stories are framed by Abie, a young Londoner from Sierra Leone who returns to her birthplace to revive the fortunes of her family’s coffee plantation.

But Abie — unlike Nathan Price — never becomes more than a shadowy presence in the novel. The few pages about her at the open and close of the book are scarcely enough to let the reader know that the four narrators are her aunts, daughters of her grandfather’s many wives. Though she is the ostensible audience for the stories, most of them mention her only in rhetorical asides, if at all. As an outsider, Abie could have been a conduit between the reader and the aunts, contextualizing their stories with factual and historical information about Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, her silence makes reading the novel like looking at a specimen through an out-of-focus microscope: You know what you’re looking at is significant, but the object is too blurred to make out.

This feeling is compounded by the undifferentiated voices of the four aunts. While Asana and Serah do begin to develop distinct identities as the book progresses, in the first two sections, the women all speak in a generic African dream voice. It doesn’t help that neither the landscape of the village they grow up in nor the geography of the country are ever clearly delineated. Without knowing a bit of Forna’s biography, it would be impossible to determine that the book is set in Sierra Leone — the name of the country never appears in the book — and the stories are littered with Western tropes about Africa: one-dimensional descriptions of the forest, the river, the gold, the coffee plantations, the heat, the lack of food. This lack of specificity is the most tragic thing about “Ancestor Stones.” Aside from a story in which Asana’s home is ransacked by the rebel army in the mid-1990s, Serah’s participation in the two elections — moving and understated portrayals — are the only direct references to political matters in the novel. These rare energetic moments prompt the question: Why aren’t there more of these?

After all, Forna has the chops for such moments. Her first book, “The Devil That Danced on the Water” — a memoir about her father, Sierra Leone’s finance minister in the early 1970s who was executed for treason when she was 10 — unflinchingly investigates the circumstances of her father’s death, weaving in the history and politics of Sierra Leone. She combines penetrating journalism with a novelist’s eye for detail. In that book’s opening pages, Forna describes the city of Freetown as “lying like grounds in a broken coffee bowl” at the base of the hills. Unfortunately, this sort of surprising image rarely appears in “Ancestor Stones.” “The Devil” is everything “Ancestor Stones” isn’t: organically structured, precise and intellectually rigorous. If the memoir is a sharp photograph of Freetown, the novel is an impressionistic painting of an unidentifiable African village.

In a recent interview with the Independent, Forna said she wanted to “create people who told other kinds of truths than literal truths” in her fiction. Her next novel is about a man who has a cameo in “Ancestor Stones”: Adrian Lockheart, a white, male aid worker who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps this outsider narrator will allow Forna to realize that fictional truth does not necessitate the abandonment of her rigorous journalistic eye, but rather, would benefit from its perceptive gaze.

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