This is an astounding book. Profound. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Gyasi employs a narrative structure I haven’t seen before, and it is just one of a million choices she makes that is exactly right. The entire book is exactly right. Each plot point, each character, each word. Each chapter is its own stunning creation, and they all fit together with precision and symmetry into an intricate and complex quilt worthy of being hung on the wall and admired or wrapped around your shoulders and treasured. Why does history matter? How do the stories of our ancestors affect our lives in the present? How does racism ripple through multiple generations? Slavery happened so long ago, why can’t we just move on? Through the simple power of human story, Gyasi gracefully answers these big, abstract questions. This is why we read. This is what literature is for. This is how a writer changes the world.
I want to give a basic summary of plot, but I feel like even explaining the narrative structure is a spoiler. So I’ll attempt a vague, half-spoiler: this is not a story with a traditional main character structure. The main character is not a person; the main character is the slave trade (or oppression or generational trauma…), and the story of each of those things is told via the people in whose lives they operate. Another way I think of it is like that story of multiple blind people trying to describe an elephant by only using their hands to feel one part of the elephant. This book makes “humanity” the main character, deeply explores one aspect of humanity via stories about people who have been affected by the slave trade, and trusts other writers are working to explore other aspects of humanity.