Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★★
Summary: In 18th century Ghana, during the slave trade of the Gold Coast, half-sisters Effia and Esi are born into two different villages. One is married off to a British slaver, the other is sold into slavery and shipped off to America. Spanning seven generations and 300 years of history, one thread of descendants follows centuries of warfare in Ghana, through the struggles of the Fante and Asante nations. The other thread of descendants branches off into America, from the plantations of the South, through the coal mines of Pratt City, and right up to the present day.
“They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.”
– Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
The first thing that struck me about “Homegoing” before I actually started reading it, was that I understood from the blurb it was going to be some sort of family saga, and yet it’s a relatively short book, just barely 300 pages. In volume I was expecting a much bigger book; it seemed impossible that it should cover seven generations and 300 years of history, and so I’ll admit that I had my doubts. But as it turns out, never judge a book by its size.
“Homegoing” covers everything I mentioned and it does so in such a rich, thorough, and deeply emotional way. This is such an amazing accomplishment, and in a debut no less. Each chapter jumps forward in time and is centered around a new family member as we move through the generations, alternating between those descendants who mostly remained in Ghana, and those descendants who ended up in America. These chapters aren’t very long but they each still offer incredibly deep and complex insight, and I’m impressed with how Gyasi has managed to create such well-rounded characters in so few pages. The characterization is one of my favorite things in this book, and while I started out afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the changing perspectives, (I have mentioned before that multiple viewpoints isn’t my favorite thing), the previous characters and their chapters actually lingered with me throughout the entire story. I can definitely see how it can be frustrating that you’ll never return to a character once their chapter is finished – and there were characters I really wanted to go back to so I could learn more about their fate. Sometimes you do get a sense of one entire storyline ending and you almost feel like taking a break before starting a new one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I see how this can be frustrating to some. At the same time I still felt that none of the previous characters were ever really gone or forgotten, and that is in my opinion some of the beauty of this novel. I didn’t feel like I was reading a collection of short stories or anything but in fact a well-connected family saga. The plot is given continuity this way, even across borders and centuries. I love how this came through so clearly in the writing.
This book is, as you might expect, a rather gritty book. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything; there is racist language, horrible and violent descriptions of whippings, of captivity and abuse – just to mention a few things. To add to this, a large amount of research has clearly gone into this book. The result is a book that is rich in knowledge, about life during the tribal wars in Ghana, the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, the inhumanly hard work in the Pratt City coal mines, the fear following the Fugitive Slave Act, and many other points. The research is impressive and ambitious, but Gyasi has more than managed it, the writing is so real and present in the moment, and I found myself very grateful to be offered more insight to this period of history.
The overall writing in this book is beautiful and brilliant. The separate stories are weaved together in a way that never seems rushed or lacking and I think this is all so well-written, not just in regards to pacing and dialogue but also in the way the important subjects of the novel are handled. They’re presented with so much care and humanity and sensitivity. Small and seemingly common but significant details have been given plenty of room despite the short chapters, and each and every character has their own personality and individuality. The end result is a book that is through and through honest and I would absolutely recommend this.