Written by: Yaa Gyasi
Review: 5 / 5 stars
Summary: Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
Disclaimer: This book was given to me to judge for use in the University of Florida’s 2017 Common Reading Program.
“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”
Review: This is one of the more beautifully crafted books I’ve had the opportunity to read recently. I choose the word “crafted” very intentionally, because Gyasi has created a piece of literary art (and because the cover is actual art). Homegoing is an intricate story following two lineages of the same family through seven generations, one branching off into America via the slave trade while the other remains in their home country of Ghana. Each chapter, spanning about 20 – 30 pages each, alternates between the two distinct lineages, clearly drawing a thick line between the two cultures in America and in Ghana. I’ve seen a lot of people reviewing this book and saying that they didn’t enjoy how short the chapters, and the views into the characters’ lives, were, but I think that these a glimpses and what Gyasi chose to show us made it all the more poignant. Additionally, the fact of the matter is that it is more than just a statement on slavery and racism; there are tropes of domestic abuse, drug use, depression, poverty… but also of joy, of unity, of acceptance, of family. Gyasi creates a piece that reminds us to not forget history and our pasts, both as humanity and as individuals, but to use that past as a foundation to built our future. Although hundreds of years separate Effia and Esi from their descendants, there is always a tenuous line that connects them.
Despite the fact that this is a story really made up of fourteen other stories, it didn’t read like that. One of my friends on the committee told me that she didn’t enjoy it because it felt like short stories, but I disagree. Gyasi creates connections not only between generations, but between the two lines; but she does it with such finesse, that you do have to look a little deeper. One of the best examples of this is that members on both sides of the family and all throughout history have “visions” of their ancestors that either save them from doing something stupid or allow for them to look deeper into their situation. Although I think one side of the family certainly seems to have more of these visions, the theme of fire as a villain on one side of the family – a statement to African villages’ fear of fire and its destructive powers – and water as a villain – a statement to the slaves’ fear of the water that brought them – on the other also connects them, a subtle recurring theme Gyasi uses to further characterize the two sides of the family as a whole. Beyond all this, the ending of this book was beautiful (albeit a little convenient), and it truly ties together the book as a whole as well as finally connecting the two different sides of the family.
Despite the fact that Gyasi introduces the reader to fourteen main characters, she does it more beautifully than most authors do with one or two. Each character simply leapt off the pages. Besides a few characteristics such as scars, unchallenged beauty, or by the size of their body, she does not waste her precious time explaining in detail what they looked like physically, instead relying on their stories for the reader to create an image for him or herself. Even when she does pick out a few key characteristics, they only accentuate the story, such as using one of the character’s disfiguring scars as a lesson to his students about how to seek the truth. Gyasi also celebrates the diversity of individuals within a race, and the way that their lives can play out in different parts of the world despite the things that tie them together. Whether it be Quey’s struggle with his attraction to his friend in a time and place where homosexuality was considered a heinous sin; or Ness’ desperation for her son to have a life of freedom; or Willie’s struggle in being married to a black man who could choose to live a white life; or Sonny’s struggle to rise out of a drug-induced stupor and the hell it had placed him in; or so many more, each specific story and character pulls on a different heartstring like a harp, creating a melody that made my heart sing for these characters and hope beyond reason that their story would end well, even when I knew it wouldn’t.
Although I loved this book and have started recommending it to almost anyone who will listen, I am not going to be recommending it for the Common Reading Program at my university. We have been tasked with choosing our top three favorite books, and we also have to consider how relatable and teachable the books are, and sadly, my fellow committee members failed to see first year students relating to Homegoing, even though I believed there was a small lesson attached to every new chapter and every new character’s story. Again, this has not kept me from recommending it to almost everyone else I can, you all included! I 100% recommend it for fans of historical fiction and African literature, but even for those unfamiliar/uninterested in those subjects. It has a wide appeal and a universal message combined with wildly interesting anecdotes that makes it easily enjoyable to all those who read it.