A beautifully rendered novel, reminiscent in some ways of Andrea Levy's Small Island which won a few prestigious awards a few years ago. The scope here of Aminatta Forna's novel, though, is slightly larger, representing a range of women's voices, their individual life-stories often clamoring with one another to form a rich, mosaic depicting the various fates of a community of African women living through social and political changes. While the novel focuses on the women's personal stories, it does not by any means insulate itself from the ever-encroaching social, political and historical pressures exerted by Western imperialism, colonialism, as well as independence and the ensuing civil war.
Since Publishers Weekly and the Booklist provide a summary of the novel above, I won't repeat it here, but I would say that I disagree with Publishers' comment--that the novel here is really a collection of linked stories--because that is simply untrue. While each chapter is a first-person narration of one woman's story, they are not self-contained; they are simply not structured that way, and as a casual and critical reader of linked stories, I would say that, experientially, it doesn't read like that either. Moreover, to see this text as linked stories instead of a novel is perhaps to miss what I think is one of the novel's fundamental points: that these stories are inseparable from one another, the multiple voices not only building on each other, but also proving to be indispensible to the telling of this continuing collective history--or perhaps herstory--of Sierra Leone.
I would also contest the comparison the jacket cover makes between this book and Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club. One of the many things I appreciated about this novel is precisely that it resists overly sentimentalized and/or utopian depictions of this community of women. To be sure, the novel dramatizes the struggles and defiance of women living under Sierra Leone's patriarchal culture, this novel does not devolve into tear-jerking melodrama, or reduce the problems to patriarchal oppression alone. Instead, it offers a range of subtle (and not-so-subtle, though never didactic) critques of not just African patriarchal culture and its practices, but also of the many guises of Western colonialism and its legacies, as well as of the power inequalities, struggles and hypocrisies among the women themselves, who, in many and various ways, contribute to the social and political problems addressed.
Overall, Ancestor Stones is a good, substantial, fluid read, the writing lyrical, but not overly so, with plenty of narrative tension, as well as critical complexities that challenge Western assumptions about Africa and African women, sometimes holding up a proverbial mirror to reflect back images of the West and Western attitudes towards African people. I would give this a 4.5, but since that's not an option, I've chosen to give it a 5 instead of a 4. Well worth the read.