Yaa Gyasi’s stunning debut novel Homegoing traces the story of a Ghanaian family as it plays out both in the Asante region and in America. In the late-18th century, two beautiful daughters are born to the same mother. One during a raging and devastating fire and as a result of rape, the other from a loving marriage. Growing up in different villages they are not aware of each other’s existence, but before they are fully grown their paths finally cross – almost. For a generous bride price Effia was married to an Englishman and lives an isolated but luxurious life in Cape Coast Castle, from whence the British colonisers sell slaves across the Atlantic. She is unaware that her half-sister Esi is imprisoned inside the dungeons below her feet, waiting to be shipped off to America. Stacked on top of each other are hundreds of women, the pain and smells are described in such detail you can almost sense it coming off the page as Esi “could feel the woman on top of her peeing. It travelled between both of their legs.” Separated by nothing but floorboards, Effia and Esi start the matrilineal storytelling that will take the reader through centuries, generations and continents.
In alternating chapters, one thread of the novel follows Effia’s family through rural life in Ghana as the Fante and Asante nations wage wars against each other or the British and as the British strive to turn their colonial presence in the region from slave-trading economic partners to true owners of the land. The second storyline sees Esi survive the slaveship to the US and then follows her children into and through America as they face plantations, mines, segregation and racism. While the individual chapters – each introducing a family member of the next generation – read like short stories, they are all connected through symbols and memories or characters that reappear through dreams and tales of family history. The West African chapters carry an almost magical feeling throughout the book and amaze with their lyrical writing. The stories set in America, on the other hand, are unflinching in their social criticism and colder, less hopeful perhaps. Gyasi explores history carefully and while the overarching theme of Homegoing is all the pain and (ongoing) injustice caused by colonialism and slavery, none of her characters is left blame- or flawless; neither in regards to their personal destiny nor in relation to the grander developments of history.
The way in which Yaa Gyasi manages to tell the big in the small, to explore historic events and social change via intimately personal feelings and experiences, is what astonished me most. Her use of language is beautiful, often lyrical and gives the reader access to a vast and nuanced realm of human emotion, love and suffering. Gyasi’s writing is tender towards her protagonists, yet powerful in its impact as she seeks to show how colonialism and slavery are not things of the past but still today remain very real and current in their consequences for many. As the book goes on the chapters get shorter and at times less gripping. Generally, Gyasi manages to construct characters beautifully on very few pages by connecting them to their ancestors, but with some of the later (and especially the American) stories she loses some of her power.
Perhaps due to the ambitious project of following fourteen characters over seven generations, the narrative has some minor flaws but the writing never disappoints. Homegoing is a fantastic novel and a spectacular read that I would recommend to everyone without hesitation. Luckily, Gyasi’s second novel Transcendent Kingdom is already waiting for me on my windowsill.