This has to be one of the finest debut novels I have ever read! It optimized the use of a unique format, flowed smoothly, successfully sifted through a huge cast of varied characters, and spanned both generations and multiple locales with ease.
At its heart, this is a novel about family couched in the history of slavery and prejudice. As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to two young African village girls who are then followed into their marriages. Each section of the novel as it progresses tells about a pivotal time in a new character's life and gives enough backstory for the reader to understand how that character is related either directly to one of the initial two young women or her descendants. The novel progresses in a clean chronological line from the time of slavers on Africa's western coast into the present.
I listened to the audio for this one (marvelous, if rather slow-paced, narration by Dominic Hoffman) and at times it was a struggle to follow along through the generations. To the novel's credit, I never did have to resort to looking for a character list or family tree online--something that frequently happens when listening to these types of multi-generational works. Mr. Hoffman's talent for the many required accents also helped me to keep everyone straight.
I have read several critiques that said that just as soon as the reader began to get attached to one character, the novel would spring forward to someone else. I actually loved that about the book. It kept the book from ever lagging since only the most relevant times in each character's life were laid out for the reader. In being introduced to so many subsequent generations, I felt like I was able to see just how each character's life impacted those of their descendants. You also found out some "epilogue" type information about earlier characters through the later chapters about their progeny.
One of the themes that I felt strengthened the novel was that of setting and how regardless of time or place, there were certain elements that were found in the experiences of every character. This element really came into play when the novel was brought to a perfect full circle at its conclusion.