Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is hugely ambitious in every way a book can be – it tackles the history of the slave trade, the story stretches across 400 years, it alternates its setting between two continents and has a different central character for each chapter. Given this scale of ambition, the book doesn’t always hit its mark, however it is a powerful, haunting read that will stay with me for years.
The book begins in eighteenth-century Ghana with the birth of two half-sisters and follows their very different life trajectories: one sister is sold into slavery and is transported to America, the other marries a British slave trader and remains in Africa. From there, the novel traces their and their ancestors’ fates through the centuries until the book concludes in modern day America.
The structure of the novel is unusual: each chapter of the book tells a new story about the next descendant. As a consequence, the book is more like a collection of short stories, loosely bound together by the family tree set out at the start. And yet, it all works. The book’s success lies in Gyasi’s exploration of the travesty of the slave trade, as well as her ability to illustrate how its consequences have ricocheted down the centuries, affecting generation after generation.
The early chapters of the book which focussed on the details of the slave trade were fascinating. I realised, to my shame, that I’ve never read an African account of the slave trade. The visceral descriptions of the prisoner’s conditions were perturbing (‘the waste on the dungeon floor was up to Esi’s ankles. There had never been so many women in the dungeon before. Esi could hardly breath’). Yet, even more disturbing was reading how the British lived their privileged life (with their black mistresses and children) in the Cape Coast Castle on top of the dungeon – obviously able to ignore the human misery under their feet.
Homegoing is Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel and I think she is still yet to fully hit her stride. At times, her writing was pretty clunky and I don’t think the book was edited as assiduously as it could’ve been. Her acute observations, however, make it easy to forgive this clunkiness:
[Her English husband’s] need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad’, this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.
Homegoing is an astonishing book for a number of reasons: despite the enormity of its subject matter, it’s really readable; its characters are nuanced, being neither wholly good or totally bad; it has moments of poignancy as well as emotional king-hits. I highly recommend this book for those wanting to better understand this aspect of history, and to be gently challenged in the process.