Aminatta Forna made peace with Sierra Leone, the homeland she fled as a girl, by reconstructing the most terrible memories of her childhood, and then digging deeper. She investigated the execution of her finance minister father for treason — he was sentenced to hanging when she was 11 — and learned that his accusers were bribed into giving false testimony. She recorded these recollections and discoveries in a furious, breathtaking memoir, “The Devil That Danced on the Water.”
Her first novel, “Ancestor Stones,” is an even more ambitious undertaking, one that seeks to evoke an entire country through the stories of four women and their Anglicized niece. The niece, Abie, returns to replant the family coffee plantation, which has been ravaged by war. Standing amid the trees to greet her are four husbandless aunts, half-sisters born to different wives of the same wealthy planter. Abie’s arrival prompts the women to unburden themselves of their histories and deepest secrets.
Forna allows each woman to tell her own story. Aunt Asana, daughter of the senior wife, is a widow with a “magnificent hauteur” inherited from her mother. Mary, the spinster aunt, has a damaged eye that causes children to run from her in fright. Bitter Hawa has always worn the same expression, of “disappointment already foretold.” Divorcee Serah, “belly sister” to Abie’s father, speaks to her niece as “no other adult ever had — as though I might one day become her equal.” Their stories flow like water, one often tragic event giving way to another.
It’s a book that gathers power as it goes. My one criticism is that the intended universality of Forna’s women sometimes makes their voices feel insufficiently differentiated. You can sample Ancestor Stones online at the New York Times and at KGBBarLit. If you haven’t read Forna, start with The Devil That Danced on the Water.