A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.
Two half-sisters, 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.
Generation after generation, Yaa Gyasi’s magisterial first novel sets the fate of the individual against the obliterating movements of time, delivering unforgettable characters whose lives were shaped by historical forces beyond their control. Homegoing is a tremendous reading experience, not to be missed, by an astonishingly gifted young writer.
Description taken from Goodreads.
Here we are, the final part of my three-part Stanford summer reading list adventure. Before we get into the meat of this review, a brief overview of what I thought of the whole shebang:
Stanford Picks Series
If you’ve been keeping up with this series, you may be under the impression that I wasn’t too astounded by the picks made this year, and you’re right–to an extent. The books chosen aren’t the best or most-moving in their categories. I felt that there was much left to be desired in each one.
That said, do I regret reading all of them? Any of them? No.
The rationale behind choosing these books was the “sense of hope and optimism amid extremely challenging circumstances,” in the words of program moderator professor Noah Diffenbaugh. In my first review, I held out hope that the other books in the set would accomplish this in a way I hadn’t found in the first book, but it wasn’t meant to be. These books ended up meaning little to me on a human level.
Rather, what I derived from this series was the similar, less emotional idea that life goes on. These books support that claim in a way that’s intellectual and well-researched. In the case of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, this worked because it’s nonfiction. In the cases of Salvage the Bones and Homegoing, I believed that the stories missed an important element of historical fiction. Namely, the fiction part.
Now, denotatively speaking, Salvage the Bones and Homegoing are undeniably historical fiction. If you happen into a library, that’s the section you’ll find them in because they combine history and fiction. Moreover, they lay out their historical worlds very well, and they demonstrate the human experience in that time period. However, on the connotative side of the fence, I found these books to be lacking the heart and soul that defines literature. The power of fiction is that it makes us feel something about other people, other places, and other time periods. The characters become flesh and blood just as much as they are ink and paper. Their lives become our lives. Their experiences extend empathy. Their stories change the way we write ours.
And these books were so close to being *that* kind of literature for me, but not close enough.
Let’s start out with why that was in Homegoing.
Reading this book is like a test. Every chapter starts out with the son or daughter of whomever came before, and usually we find them in their late teens to early thirties. This means that every single time you start a new chapter, you’re thrown into a new life, a new job, and a new romantic interest. You have about two pages to figure out where you are, what you’re doing, and what’s going on, with ridiculously little help from the supporting cast.
Multiply that tactic by two storylines, one taking place in Africa and the other taking place in the United States. Alternate the storylines by chapter so that you’re forced to hop from a set of characters in Africa to a set of characters in the U.S. to Africa to the U.S. over and over again, and then you’ve got Homegoing.
It is a thoroughly exhausting experience. But hey, I bet it was even harder to write than it is to read, so kudos to Yaa Gyasi for that.
Each character’s life is a snapshot. Maybe there was supposed to be a kind of poetry in never truly knowing the character, only the moments that define him or her. In theory, it’s an incredible idea. In practice, at least here, it’s too weak for this type of plot.
I believe that the kind of story Gyasi was attempting to tell is a saga, a multi-generational epic that shows the strength of family, culture, and home. That type of story is dependent on the rope that hold the generations together. It has to be so twisted and knotted that it can’t possibly come undone. In Homegoing, because the only relationships between each generation is a few paragraphs on how someone got from one place to another, the rope is barely a thread. The family snaps into a series of individuals rather a cohesive whole, and the meaningful, poignant, evocative saga that we were hoping for loses all insight. The veil is lifted, the real world filters in, and the magic of a novel is no longer there.
But then what about short stories? Other books that are written in this fashion and do manage to pull it off? What makes them different? I believe that comes in an ability to swiftly make a character’s life matter to us readers.
The beginning of Homegoing worked for me for a few reasons. There’s the obvious one, which is that it was the beginning and I was still fresh, and the less obvious one: that the characters were unusually compelling. The book starts talking about Effia, the beauty of the village who’s abused by her stepmother (actually sounds quite like Cinderella) and is manipulated into marrying an English slave trader, and Esi, Effia’s half-sister who is captured and sold into the slave trade. The parallels that are drawn were intriguing to follow and left me wanting more. I cared about Effia’s children, Esi’s children, their children’s children… and then the stories started to blend together.
We find almost all of them in optimism. We leave almost all of them in tragedy. There’s only so much we can take of this.
Overall, Gyasi is a strong writer. The execution of the story had potential, and the world-building was perfect. I would say she’s a writer to watch, but, as with all writers, she has plenty of room to grow. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a more effective version of a saga, the kind I was describing, I would highly recommend Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. 2 stars.