Confession: I took this book out of the library no less than twice before I managed to read it. I was intimidated by the book, both by its content and its acclaim. It has a near perfect five star rating on Cannonball Read and high rating on Goodreads where literary fiction doesn’t normally do so well. I shouldn’t have been hesitant – the book earns its high rating by being one of the most accessible works of literary and historical fiction I have possibly ever read.
In her debut Yaa Gyasi tells a story which is both grand in scope and intimate in its execution, which is often attempted and rarely executed to this level. The book is also nearly flawless. Homegoing follows the descendants of a single Asante woman, Maame, living in late-18th century Gold Coast Africa. Structurally the novel traces the descendant generations of each of her daughters on two continents. One of her daughters, Effia, marries a white Englishman stationed at the fort and her descendants stay in Ghana. Her other daughter, Esi, is captured in a raid and sold into slavery in America. Adding to the nature of the story being told is that each daughter comes into the world into different families and different tribes, completely independent and unaware of the other.
The chapters are vignettes of one person per generation in each line, starting with the two half-sisters. The chapters follow the next six generations in Ghana and America. These generations span over two hundred years of African and American history which includes some of the ugliest chapters each has to offer: colonialism, explicit and implicit racism, and the list goes on. One line has found itself in a land not of its choosing, unwelcome and continually oppressed; the other in the land of its ancestors, but searching for something new and meaningful and struggling to achieve either. The two lines move in concert with one another, across an ocean and in vastly different circumstances, but their shared past unites them in ways they cannot be aware of, and that are gently uncovered for the reader to connect.
Overall, Homegoing took my breath away. The book takes on the big issues that initially scared me away; slavery and the involvement of both the British and African civil unrest, familial ties both pride and resentment, racial identity, segregation, the value placed on female bodies, child raising, and more head on, without blanching from the truth. This is a book that it isn’t afraid of its contents and keeps them from overwhelming the reader. The characters, the themes, and the sheer ambition of tackling so much time is astounding and could have easily gotten away from Gyasi, and she touched on the possibility briefly through her characters in the final chapters. Gyasi manages the tightrope by keeping the chapters crisp.
The most beautiful part of this book is how wonderfully the whole turns out to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual story is interesting, well-researched and developed in order to be compelling even in the quiet moments. As a whole, the interwoven stories are a sparklingly nuanced, producing a thought-provoking picture of race, the past, and inheritance. You can tell Gyasi put an ocean of thought into the whole thing and took greatest advantage of the fellowships she was awarded to put the time in to craft this work. The evidence of the mechanics falls away and we are left with the world, the story, and the characters; and a plain prose that could be confused for simple and unskilled but that would be confusing density with expertise. Gyasi’s expert craftsmanship shows in the lack of obvious work, which is quite the trick.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.