Gyasi dives into the world of slavery tapping into the roots from where it all began. Her point of departure is the West of Africa, the hub of slave trade. The focus of the story is on two lines of families, name Effia’s and Esi’s lines respectively. These two characters are descendants of an Asante woman called Maame. While Effia is born free and goes on to marry a British man called James Collins, Esi languishes in a dungeon of the Cape Coast Castle. During her captivity, Esi is raped prior to being shipped to America.
Back to Effia, she is nurtured by a woman, Baaba, who is anything but caring and loving towards her. However, Baaba soon dies and Effia is rescued from the claws of a conniving and unforgiving woman. Nonetheless, it appears that Baaba’s request for Effia to hide her menstrual cycle results in her marrying James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. Upon the death of her father, Effia’s brother tells her that she is not Baaba’s daughter. He reveals that her mother was a slave at the time of her conception.
A striking reality is that, without her knowledge, Effia is unaware that her sister, Esi, is suffering at the hands of her husband. Effia’s village is engaged in the sale of slaves. Thus, her marriage to James acts as a blockade against any attempts to sell her into such captivity. On Effia’s side, Gyasi exposes her readers to the continued conflict between the Fante and Asante communities. Their conflict is the outcome of their divided view on slavery, and consequently, British colonization. On this particular account, slavery is seen as a potentially destructive force which could topple a seemingly united family.
Esi’s experiences are not as pleasant as she and her children live in America, a then divided nation with regard to the institution of slavery. Esi is sold in what had already become a blossomed slave trade at the Gold Coast. Her children and grandchildren are born and raised into slavery. Esi toils in the plantations of the South and experiences milestone events such as the Civil War, which renews some hope for those that thought they would die in slavery. The novel mainly follows seven generations of both Effia and Esi merging the histories of both the US and Ghana leading to the turn of the 21st century.
Of US-Ghanaian descent, Gyasi deliberately delves into the effect of power positions which are evident in the seemingly non-existent relationship between Effia and Esi. Without knowledge of the existence of the other, neither Effia nor Esi can comprehend the magnitude of a dilemma that would erupt once their link is uncovered. Gyasi is unforgiving toward the two characters, but she shows intent in exposing the two sisters to different life experiences. However, it is clear that Effia’s privileged position is largely due to her marriage to a British man. Although implicit, her marriage is a bargaining chip for her wellbeing thus saving her from suffering the same fate as her half-sister.
There is a vast amount of historical information which is coupled with a notable degree of rich characterization. In each chapter, the reader is introduced to the perspective of a new character as Gyasi tracks the cultural transformations in both America and Ghana. The dominant themes at the time are racism, colonialism, and the wrenching institution of slavery. Gyasi takes on a bird’s eye-view of the lives of both Effia and Esi as she tries to capture key events that define their lives and those of their descendants. In doing so, she is able to balance her story from being largely about familial relationships; she gives adequate attention to the transatlantic slave trade and the horrors it bestows upon those unlucky enough to have been captured.
The novel is strikingly objective and provokes readers to participate in the discussion concerning colonialism and slavery. More so, Gyasi throws in tribal wars which are reflective of disputes between a people of the same origin, but who, after exposure to the white man’s treasure and wealth, are easily swayed to turn against each other. The booming of the slave trade is actually presented as being the outcome of the tribal wars explaining that Africans were even more culpable; they sold each other into slavery with no realistic gain in sight. Gyasi pits colonialism and slavery against each other peppering them in half-baked conversations. She writes, “All people on the black continent must give up their heathenism and turn to God. Be thankful that the British are here to show you how to live a good and moral life”.
Despite the historical element of the novel, Gyasi is sensitive toward the reader’s desire to relate with a particular character. In this case, Esi qualifies as the most ideal candidate as from her point of view, the reader is exposed to the vexing impact of slavery, that even half-tied familial bonds cannot overcome. Gyasi addresses Esi’s experiences allowing the reader to walk with her as she mediates through the destabilizing effects of slavery. However, despite the wedge that is cuts across both of these families, Gyasi leverages love as the glue that binds them to each other.
Gyasi is creative in her resolve to emphasize the importance of physical love between man and women. The love between Effia and James turns them against the slavery resulting in loss of wealth, home, and identity. On the other hand, Esi does enjoy the affection of man despite the limiting impact of slavery. The outcome of these events is, to say the least, empowering to some degree as Esi maintains an optimistic outlook of life. From this perspective, Gyasi gives her readers a feel of hope and the potential of emancipation, although not physically, but of the mind.
It is quite interesting that as each generation unfolds, they face a new set of challenges that demonstrate their vulnerability. However, Gyasi emphasizes on the theme of love, which is limitless, timeless, and borderless. The experiences of the generations from Effi and Esi are bathed in love and hope. The depth of connection between man and woman is an epitome of the solid foundation that love can set, which cannot be toppled even in the face of adversity. On this account, Gyasi is able to express the beauty of life in despite the harrowing conditions of slavery.
While the novel loses some of its urgency as the chapters unfold, the reader is given a break through few incidents of rape, or sudden abductions that deprive others of their freedom. There is the risk of the novel becoming overloaded thereby lacking a focal point upon which the reader can tie in all aspects together. Gyasi’s writing is, to some extent, a big ask for a reader who would simply be looking to follow the story of pone protagonist throughout. Thus, there is the potential of a reader perceiving the chapters as being their own independent stories rather than being tied to racism, slavery and colonialism.