In this sprawling and epic novel, Yaa Gyasi transports us from 18th century Ghana to just before the turn of the millennium in the United States. Effia and Esi are sisters in Ghana, although they have grown up apart, unaware of the existence of the other. When the British slave traders arrive, Effia is married off to one of to a governor and Esi is enslaved by the very same. In the stately castle where Effia now lives, Esi is held prisoner in the dungeons underneath, in unspeakably inhumane conditions. As an exposition, these two narrative threads are stunning in their simplicity and contrast.
‘These tears were a matter of routine. They came for all of the women. They dropped until the clay below them turned to mud. At night, Esi dreamed that if they all cried in unison, the mud would turn to river and they could be washed away into the Atlantic.’
We then follow, in alternating chapters, the descendants of each of the sisters over the generations. One necessary limitation of this approach is that we never spend quite enough time with a character before we are pulled forward decades in time, which is somewhat unsatisfying. And yet there is something about that disorientation and rupture that feels quite deliberate – these stories will only exist to us as fragments.
Nevertheless, even within these fragments of a life, Gyasi builds up a rich picture of horror and humanity. One story that stood out to me was that of H, who, after the abolition of slavery, is convicted on trumped-up charges of looking at a white woman the wrong way.
‘By sunrise the next morning, on a sweltering July day in 1880, H was chained to ten other men and sold by the state of Alabama to work the coal mines just outside of Birmingham.’
H reflects that ‘The convicts working the mines were almost all like him. Black, once slave, once free, now slave again.’ And through the years, as we hear the stories of H’s descendants, for whom the historical legacy of slavery is never far behind them. A nation of people torn from their homeland, who find themselves generations later still unwelcome and yet unable to go anywhere else – for where is ‘home’?
‘He would never truly know who his people were, and who their people were before them, and if there were stories to be heard about where he had come from, he would never hear them.’
The parts of the novel depicting life in America are suffused with historical detail, whereas the scenes in Ghana feel more lacking. Perhaps it’s because the American culture and history is much more familiar to me, I felt that those scenes – although at times a little heavy-handed and trying to do too much – encapsulated the culture of the times far better than the scenes in Ghana. I think that Gyasi could have made the writing work harder for her, enabling her to rely less on telling and more on showing. But those shortcomings don’t detract from the value of this book.
‘“We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.” She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’
The heart of what makes this novel so effective is the idea of home. While Effia’s descendants remain for the most part in Ghana, they retain strong ties to their ancestral, cultural and linguistic histories. They were never forcibly removed from their country, and so they have a strong sense of where they came from, a sense of belonging. This is never afforded to Esi’s descendants, who will never know their roots. And yet in their survival, they are powerful. And in telling these stories, Gyasi imbues them with power.
‘“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”’
Ambitious, insightful and moving, Homegoing is an impressive debut about the human condition, the violence of colonialist and racist systems, the ripple effects of history, and the strength in survival.