30 July 2016
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.
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.
I missed Yaa Gyasi's signing line at BEA (rats) but I was able to get approved for an Edelweiss galley and for that I am so grateful (Gyasi will be signing at Prairie Lights in October, yay for Iowa Writer's Workshop alums). This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.
The structure of this novel serves up the plot to perfection. Once Effia and Esi are introduced in adjacent chapters - in settings both sublimely beautiful and terrible - the plot unfolds through two branches of the family tree. Every chapter follows a subsequent generation, alternating branches, Effia's line then Esi's line. Reading other reviews, I noted that some readers were frustrated that Gyasi changed narrators so often. Just when we wish to have more time with a character, we jump branches and generations. But I thought this was such a good way of representing the pull of time. The characters cannot go back to have questions answered, to find things that were lost, or make different choices. Time only goes forward. This was especially true for those chapters set among Esi's descendants who were sold into slavery in the American South - there was no going back to know one's grandparents, or home village, or ancestral tongue. Brutal.
Homegoing is so well-crafted it's almost unbelievable that this is a debut. This book will break you, in a good way. Keep the tissues handy.
Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.