Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

If you have even a toe in the book world, you probably heard a lot about this book last year or the year before. So yes, I might very well be the last person on the planet to read it despite having had a copy of it forever. Somehow it just never made it onto my bedside table and I missed out on the whole conversation about it amongst lit reading types. I figured when one of my book clubs chose it for this month's book that it was a good time for me to finally tackle it and see what all the hype was about. And I'm so glad I did because the descriptions I'd seen of it don't quite catch the truth and reality of it (nor will I, most likely).

Opening in Ghana and chronicling 300 years, the novel starts out conventionally with the story of Effia the Beauty, a young Ashanti woman whose harsh and spiteful mother marries her off to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle rather than to the chief of their village. Effia goes to live in the upper floors of the Castle while other Ghanians destined for slavery in the Americas, including Esi, the half-sister Effia never knew, are kept in appalling conditions in the dungeons while awaiting transport. The genealogical lines flow downward from these two women as the 7 generations of their descendants make their way in Ghana and in the US, caught up in the changing history and times they live in. This is an unapologetic and gritty look at the long reaching consequences of slavery and colonialism on two very different branches of one family.

The stories of each generation, told in individual chapters, focus on one descendant of Effia and one of Esi and they run parallel to each other on down through the family tree, showing the long arc of divergence and eventual convergence in this one representative family. Each chapter captures a brief snapshot of life for the character in question leaving large swathes of time out of the narrative, focusing the reader's attention on the historical moment almost as much as on the character themselves. Each story is a distillation of that historical generation's experiences in both the US and Ghana. The family tree in the beginning of the book comes in handy in keeping everyone straight and for comparing how far from the original sisters each person is, giving the reader additional perspective since the characters themselves progressively lose pieces of their familial history as time goes on. The novel is epic in scope but the chapters and stories themselves are each self-contained and tightly focused. The narrative starts out leisurely and captivating but speeds up in later chapters and the final chapters unfold with less nuanced pictures of the later characters' lives, highlighting their generation's historical moments more than their individuality and the ending itself, while clearly symbolic, might be just a little bit too much. Gyasi has written a sweeping and expansive novel of black history, in surprisingly few pages, that encompasses the biggest movements, tragedies, and outrages against a people in two different countries.  It tackles not only the horrors of slavery and colonialism but also the truth and shame of complicity.  The novel is unflinching in its look at inhumanity and institutionalized hardship but it also shows instances of deep and abiding love, acceptance, and perseverance. A worthwhile and important read, no wonder it won or was nominated for so many awards.

1 comment:

  1. You're not the last person to read it; I just picked it up from the library on the weekend (along with 6 others, so it's not even next on the list). I'm really looking forward to it, though - so glad you concur with with (most) everyone else.


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