Synopsis (Goodreads): Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.
Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed–and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.
I have family in Ghana and it’s a country I love, dark history and all, primarily because of the warmth of its people, so when a friend recommended I read this (thank you Stace!), I literally ran out to the bookstore and bought it, overlooking the other 30-something books sitting there and looking pretty on my to-be-read shelf. Rare is the book that has me recommending it to people before I even finish reading it, but I couldn’t stop talking about Homegoing…and it’s only her debut novel!
I am a big fan of intergenerational family epics (the longer, the better) – East of Eden, A Suitable Boy, and The House of the Spirits would all fall into this category, but they never really go above 3 to 4 generations, and I understand why – stories like this draw a lot of their strength from the characters, and it’s so difficult to develop characters of depth, with an engaging story, in a finite number of pages.
In Homegoing, the story follows the parallel paths of Effia and Esi half-sisters both born of Maame in 18th century Ghana in different villages – Effia who is a product of rape but eventually marries the British Governor of the Cape Coast Castle, and Esi, who unknown to Effia, is captured and sold into slavery. From thereon, we are taken on a historical journey through the eyes of seven generations on both sides of the Atlantic…SEVEN, and in only 300 pages!
Before I read Homegoing, if someone had told me how it was structured, I would have been skeptical – how do you develop characters with enough depth AND maintain the continuity of the story if each character is only given an average of 22 pages (300/14 for all non-math geniuses)? Each of the 14 chapters reads like a short story with very individual characters, but the sum of the parts creates a wonderful broader tale that encompasses slavery and its repercussions across generations. The characters never come across as shallow and there is enough detail woven into each short story such that you never feel like you missed something.
One of Effia’s descendants Yaw, a teacher scarred by a fire set by his mother when he was young, tells his students “History is storytelling”, with the problem being the story is almost always written from the viewpoint of the victor. He says, “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
This really resonated. Slavery as a subject is very, very easy to polarise, with a natural tendency to emphasize the victimization and racist aspects – and whilst Homegoing does not flatter white people, it also points out that blacks were not entirely blameless. Early in the book, the Asante man Effia initially hoped to marry, vocalizes his ambitions for the village to become great by selling captives from their wars with other villages to either the British or the Dutch, depending on whoever would pay more.
This is a story about so much loss, as many stories around slavery inevitably are – mothers and sons, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters, are separated by either history or by individual tragedies. Although the characters are all fictitious, the book captures stories and experiences that are very real and very difficult to deal with, in an honest and ultimately uplifting voice.
There have been a number of notable and very well written books on slavery and black oppression recently, including Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I’d rank Homegoing right up there with the best of them – one of my personal favourite reads from this year.