Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I’ve had this one on my list(s) for a while now, but as it increasingly appeared in credits from books I enjoyed – as inspiration, as research, as most admired – I knew I needed to get to it sooner. Homegoing deserves the accolades. It’s both expansive and easy to read, in how beautifully it flows – although the subject matter is not generally easy.

There’s a helpful family tree in the front matter, as in These Ghosts are Family (which is one that refers to this book in an interview with the author at the end). This lets readers track the connections as we move through generations. Each chapter is titled for the character it focuses on, and each character appears in the family tree; they are featured chronologically across centuries. At the head of this tree is a woman called Maame who lived in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s. We slowly learn that she had two husbands and two daughters at two different points in her life in Fante and Asante territories respectively. The daughters, Esi and Effia, did not know about each other, and their lives led in different directions. Near the novel’s beginning they are found under the same roof but in very different circumstances: one as the wife of a white British slaver, the other imprisoned in the dungeon underground. One is able to stay in her home region (Gold Coast as a British colony), while the other is kidnapped and carried across an ocean to become a slave in America. Later chapters follow their descendants until more or less contemporary times – everyone on the family tree gets a focus chapter except for Maame herself, whose story we learn only in pieces. These lives are filled with color and detail and struggle and pain, and love and music and beauty; in every iteration they continue to witness racism, colorism and the enduring legacies of slavery and colonialism, in different ways. I of course failed to mark the quotation that said so eloquently how the same prejudices were ongoing but in subtler and more insidious ways in later times than they had been in slavery’s heyday.

Homegoing is a beautiful, absorbing novel. Every one of the featured lives is so finely wrought, I spent at least half the book lost in each of them individually; it took me most of the book to begin anticipating their connections, although I was aware of those connections all along. They are all filled with such detail and richness, but it is possible that earlier chapters stand alone more securely than later ones. Some readers call this a novel in connected stories, and I do feel that each character’s story is a whole work in itself. But there’s no question in my mind that it is more novel than collection.

Aside from realistic portrayals of lives across a remarkable span of years and locations, Gyasi also offers threads of something mythic or otherworldly: there are persistent suggestions that this family may be cursed by ill luck and fire, and its members may have a special gift of foresight. Indeed, some coincidences are difficult to explain. On the more real-world side, Homegoing is very much about the legacy of slavery from African roots to American “improvement” of the system. It has big thoughts and observations to make while still being first a story about individual people.

The New Yorker is rather harder on this book in Laura Miller’s review, and I confess that she has some points, particularly about typing in the American characters versus the African ones. The larger impression I walk away with is much more positive than Miller’s seems to have been. But I am entirely on board with her optimism about Gyasi’s future work.


Rating: 9 cocoa nuts.

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