In the 18th century in what is now Ghana, then the Gold Coast, half-sisters are born in different villages. One grows up to live in luxury in the Cape Coast Castle, never aware that her sister is packed in the slave hold just below her feet. Each chapter of the novel carries the name of a family member. They leapfrog from one side of the Atlantic to the other, down through eight generations. The different branches are unaware of each other, yet both sides from the beginning – when a woman stolen from one tribe mothers members of her enslaving tribe – bear the chains of slavery.
The form is disjointed. Rarely does a chapter end with a satisfying conclusion. The character we came to care for in one chapter is a barely remembered, disturbed or absent parent in the next as we are driven in chains, either physical or emotional, through the familiar American territory of the Great Migration, chain gangs, and drug addiction in Harlem but also through less-familiar wars against colonialism on the eastern shore. This format perfectly replicates the feeling of irreparable loss that happens when families are cracked open for the profit to be gained from individuals. Not on the same scale, of course, but modern society can do this to us all, lending universality to the epic. A compelling but not an easy read.