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Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna

“Once I went to live among strangers and I learned what it was like to lose yourself. To feel the fragments flying off you. As if your soul has unhitched itself from your body and is flying away on a piece of string like a ballon. Lost in the clouds. You think, I only have to catch the end of the string. But though it hovers within sight, you cannot grasp it. You try and try. And then comes a time when you are too tired. You no longer care.” - page 299

I appreciate bookshops that sell second hand books. I got this copy of Ancestor Stones at Indaba Book Cafè in Bulawayo for US$5. Imagine my joy! Ancestor Stones is a novel written by Aminatta Forna, who is well known for The Memory of Love and Happiness (you can read my review here). This was Forna’s debut novel which cuts across generations in the Kholifa family. Abie, inherits her grandfather’s coffee plantation. From the stories of her aunts Asana, Mariana, Hawa and Serah (who are cousins) , Abie learns of the history of her nation and her aunts’ own lives. Womanhood, sisterhood, change and legacy are important themes in this book.

The book begins with Abie returning to her roots in Rofathane “And for a moment I found myself in a place that was neither the past nor the present. Neither real nor unreal. Rothoron, my aunts called it. Probably you have been there yourself, whoever you are and wherever in the world you are reading this. Rothoron, the gossamer bridge suspended between sleep and wakefulness.’(page 10). She returns every year to Rofathane, the place of grounding and purpose. She is gifted her ancestors’ stones. Ancestors that still choose to speak from stones. These stones are gifted to Abie by Mariama and serve as a reminder to Abie of where she comes from and later a reminder to her daughter who confirms that they make a sound as if they are talking. These stones are, “Names. The names of my mother’s mother. Of my grandmother. Of my great-grandmother and her mother. The women who went before. The women who made me. Each stone chosen and given in memory of a woman to her daughter. So that their spirits would be recalled each time the stone was held, warmed by a human hand and cast on the ground for help.” (Page 56) The stones hold names that emerge from the shadows. Mariama remembers them to have been seventeen, creating a genealogy for her. When her father scatters them, some are lost never to be found or imagined. The importance of memory and it’s effect on the future is well crafted. Abie sits with her aunts to write their stories and experiences of being a woman in different times of the history of their country, to unmask the things left unsaid. In the stories of these women one cannot help but think about how we owe it to our ancestors to claim what is ours, to ask questions and stand for what is right. To try and choose. The stones connect the past and the present.

I was intrigued by the different kinds of women that I was introduced to in this book. Women who are in the lives of the protagonists and those remotely linked to them but have a great influence on their destiny. The dynamics of different women raised in a polygynous family are well rounded in this book and eye opening to a greater extent.The differences in the women’s beliefs and lifestyle does not dent their sisterhood. It takes Ngadie’s will to push out Asana out of a harmful marriage. In her own fate she sees the future that awaits Asana and saves her by making sure that Osman cannot have an erection. It is Serah’s mother who unexpectedly gives her  daughter the keys to her freedom by being bound to her father (and that is unfortunate too). Mariama makes space for Serah when she thinks she has lost everything.

Abie’s family history is captured in this book but in doing so it does more and reveals the history of the nation too. These women’s stories take us through their nation’s struggle with colonial rule, the war, independence, the role of religion and traditions and the effect of all these phases on the people. The colonial legacy is clear, it fragmented and blurred the identity of the nation and its people. Mariama, who is christened Mary questions the renaming that Christian missionaries often did to the people of wherever they settled. This also speaks to how colonialists also renamed places wherever they settled. “Yes Mary is my Christian name. That’s exactly what it is. That’s all it is. Mariama was the name given to me. The nuns took it away and replaced it with something that sounded like my name, that I learned to answer. It was easier to remember, they said. For whom I might have asked. And why did I need a name that was easy to remember.” (Page 299) That is the legacy of the colonialists, everything that they did was for their convenience and to their advantage. The colonized learned to answer to the new names, to speak a new language, dress a new way and walk a new step. And so this also becomes a story about change(s). This had me thinking if we’re still answering to names that sound like our names but are not really our names?

I like the way the book is structured into four parts; ‘Seeds,’ ‘Dreams,’ ‘Secrets,’ and ‘Consequences.’ It overlaps the women’s stories which is a beautiful way to connect them. Mariama’s character made a good impression on me. It would have been an easy and quick read if the book had been divided by the women’s/character’s individual stories but the structure as it is makes the pace slower. I found myself frequently going back to some chapters to confirm facts (or fiction). I was thoroughly involved! This might put off some readers who prefer a linear story but once you get the hang of it you’re good to go.


Book Details

Title: Ancestor Stones

Author: Aminatta Forna

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury (2006)

Pages: 400

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1 Comment

Ancestor Stone is on the list of one of my favorite reads. There is certain way the stories weave in and out of each other, leaving a trail of history vivid, The voices continue to echo beyond the pages of the book 😍

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