A Review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing
When I picked up this book, I wasn’t aware of the journey this book would take me. Now almost two years later, now that I’ve read it from start to finish, I’m saddened I hadn’t picked this up earlier. I started reading Homegoing by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, last month at the height of Black Lives Matter Protests against police brutality in the US and around the world. I couldn’t bear to use my usual random method to select books to read next from my to-be-read list, and so I deliberately picked a book by a woman of colour from my bookshelf.
Not that it should need an explicit occasion to do so, but sometimes it needs a jolt to recognise the privilege and exclusion that is prevalent in publishing. I’m aware that as a white reader, especially in Germany, I will encounter books predominantly written by white authors in any book shop I patronise. And it takes conscious effort to break simple habits and to seek out the voices of authors with less privilege.
That said, there’s no point in putting up with bad books. So this review will serve as a recommendation for an enthralling novel written by a woman of colour.
The Physical Book
I own the 2016 Vintage paperback edition of this book, and it’s a very floppy book. Holding it out horizontally by its spine, the far edge of the book drops down to a 45°-angle. The cover is soft and somewhat coarse, and the same extends to the paper it’s printed on. The only high-gloss page is an insert of blurbs that juts out as a yellow stripe behind the shortened front cover at the right edge of the book.
And while the physical qualities of my edition don’t leave a particularly solid impression, the cover art is just something I fell in love with. The colour choices are impeccable, and I regularly strive but fail to recreate this kind of texture in my own art.
Homegoing is set in our world. The plot sets out in the late 18th or early 19th century in what we, nowadays, would call Ghana around the city of Cape Coast. But with history and slavery, one plotline at least moves to the US and there with historical events through different parts of the country.
Gyasi manages to describe, notably the Ghanaian settings, with enough care to make them feel lively and lived in. I think, for places in the US, she is more reliant on a shared understanding, of what these places look like. Nevertheless, these descriptions feel vivid enough for me to supply the right backdrop to the characters of this novel.
Intergenerational as it is, Homegoing follows two Asante lineages, starting with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, the daughters of a woman called Maame. Effia and Esi grow up in separate families. Their paths cross without their knowledge when Effia marries the new commander of Cape Coast Castle and Esi is held in that very same castle for transport to the Americas as a slave. From there, two separate family histories develop.
Every main character gets their chapter in chronological order, alternating between one side of the family tree and the other. Since they are all part of family history, one of the side characters in each chapter becomes the point-of-view character in a subsequent chapter. This allows each point-of-view character an exceptional depth and roundedness. We learn about their whole life, not only what they did during their adulthood. We get to know them during their formative age, and we learn how they imprinted on the next generation in their old age.
To me, this emotional depth to each character makes this novel solid. You rarely get this many different people in one novel without losing depth to each of them. In some regard, this feels as if every character got their own short story, but each short story provides the context for the next. Even if especially the American chapters, make their characters into the messengers of a history lesson a bit too often.
And these characters, surely, are varied in their outlook in life and their emotional struggles. We find women and men who hold together families, but also women and men who pull them apart. On top of that, there’s something hidden in James’ chapter, that made me happy or at least look up in curiosity. James seems to feel love for his best friend, that goes beyond platonic love. And I’m definitely up for covert homoromantic representation.
Considering this is a debut novel, bringing the format, the characters and the plot together into one book, seems like a gargantuan task. And I’m quite sure a more distinguished reader than me, would find more fault with it than I do. Nevertheless, I think a more experienced writer could have given this book a more consistent throughline overall.
For me, much of the tension of this novel came from the spoiling glance at the family tree, printed in front of the first chapter, and my anticipation that the youngest family members with chapters of their own, Marcus and Majorie, would meet eventually.
As such, this novel is held together by a pull of symbolism that caries through the generations on the African side of the story. And a particular current of demographics and history, especially on the American side of the story, where characters exist somewhat driven only by historical events and not by their independent plotline.
For the Ghanaian characters, that is much less true. Their struggle and is guilt and blame more than anything else, in the words of Laura Miller:
“Homegoing”—the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa—is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman’s descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand.Laura Miller (2016): Descendants, in The New Yorker
To me, the writing was mostly unremarkable. A better writer could have maybe pulled the plotline together more coherently or elevated the story with more elaborate prose. But after all, this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel with considerable scope, so I can forgive non-remarkable writing without much trouble. Especially, as I think there is much potential in Gyasi’s writing, that will and could improve with more experience and maybe a less sprawling topic.
For me, this debut novel is without a doubt worth a recommendation. While its sprawling nature and largely unremarkable writing might make it fall flat for some readers, it presented an interesting, captivating story for me. Of course, this book isn’t worthy of a Nobel prize in literature, but that is an overly pretentious expectation for a writer. This book has its special pull for me, even if that didn’t come from the plot itself, but from my expectations and a collection of great characters.
As a whole, I enjoyed the depth, the unique structure of this book gave its characters, especially the strand of the family that remained in Ghana. And I enjoyed the look into Ghanaian history, that gave me the appetite to look into it more. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the view into US history. Though it certainly offers a unique perspective of slavery founded in the loss of family history, that is stark in contrast to the other strand of the family.