Homegoing is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and I’ve been putting off writing my review as I didn’t know how to do it justice.
This is an ambitious generational novel, starting with the stories of Effia and Esi, half-sisters on the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) who have never met. They suffer very different fates. Effia marries a white man from Cape Coast Castle, who is involved in the slave trade. She is from Fanteland, and some of the Fantes aligned with the white men, acting as middlemen to the slave trade, capturing other Africans and selling them.
Esi, an Asante, is one of the African women who is held at Cape Coast Castle in horrendous conditions, before being transported on a slave ship to America.
From here, each chapter is dedicated to their descendants, showing us snippets of their lives. Effia’s family stays on the Gold Coast, while Esi’s descendants are slaves in America. Both families have their hardships and their joys, and both are irreversibly changed by the decisions of their ancestors and by the actions of white men.
I cannot fully express the humanity that runs through this novel. Though each character only gets a chapter, Yaa Gyasi packs an entire lifetime into it. By the end of each chapter, you love and feel for each character as though you have read an entire book dedicated to them. This ability to so concisely portray an entire life in so few words really reminds of Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
Gyasi’s book does the incredibly important and needed job of giving a human face to the dehumanising slave trade. She shows you the devastating personal cost, the ramifications that run through both Effia and Esi’s descendants – still there years after Black people win their freedom in America. It’s very easy for a white person to not truly engage in the human cost of the slave trade – it’s very easy for us to make the victims vague, faceless and nameless, in order to assuage white guilt. By writing this story, Gyasi hits home that every person who was a victim of the slave trade – both directly and indirectly – was a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. This is obviously and absolutely a basic thing, but I think history often forgets the individual. Gyasi makes you feel the loss of each person’s life, the way their humanity was stripped from them, individually.
This novel has a sense of urgency and relevancy to it, and I think you find it most in H’s story. H is a Black man, previously a slave, who was freed when slavery became illegal in America. Instead of living a free life, though, he is arrested for a small offense and sentenced to 10 years working in the mines. One of the characters in the story remarks ‘War might be over but it ain’t ended’; H thinks about how happy he was to be free, and how that didn’t last long. Racism may take different form nowadays to how it was 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, but the effects of slavery are still here and so is white supremacy. We still have a long way to go.
The true tragedy of the novel, in my opinion, is that we as observers know more about each character’s past and future than they ever do. Each character is disconnected from their history, their parents, and often from their children. This is an effect of slavery – a disconnection from their roots. Amazingly, for such a brutal subject, Yaa Gyasi still injects hope into the novel – especially in the ending. This is symbolised most by a black stone, originally owned by Effia, which has been passed down through the generations – and is still owned by the final character. Despite the uprooting of their family, and all of the terrible things that have happened in between, this character still retains that connection to the past.
Finally, I would like to say that as well as being an incredibly important novel, Gyasi’s writing is absolutely beautiful and I don’t want that to be lost in everything else that I had to say! This is a truly remarkable debut, and it’s astounding that she manages to pack in so much depth into each character. I especially enjoyed the chapters set in Africa, as I thought she described the setting with such a richness that it felt vivid to me. I really slowed down my reading speed for this book, in order to truly savour every part of it.
This is an evocative, emotional and remarkable book – I absolutely recommend it as a must-read to everyone (though I know I am late to the party on this one)!
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