Book Reviews

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is a fantastic debut by Gyasi that explores slavery and family; ranging from the villages in Ghana, to the slave plantations in Alabama, to Harlem. It offers the perspectives of each generation as they struggle with their past, their family, and the echoes of injustice.

Summary

Effie and Esi are two half-sisters who never know each other. They are born in different villages in Ghana and while Effie is married to an Englishman, her sister Esi is enslaved beneath the floors of Effia’s Cape Coast Castle. Their sisterhood and diverging paths, are the forces that propel this story – looking at each of their subsequent generations throughout time. We witness their crossing of the Atlantic, the tribal warfare, cotton plantations, coal mines, and jazz clubs. Over time, their stories deviate and are attracted to each other, waiting for the distance between the two sisters to close.

Review

From sheer scale alone, this book deserves so much love. Gyasi spares no efforts in not only showing us this family, but also the effects of slavery and injustice on their lives generations further. It is a true testament to the scars of slavery, both physical and emotional. I specifically love the way that Gyasi explores slavery in other forms: emotionally through duty and injustice. I’ll just pick one example.

We have the obvious instance of slavery, and one that is historically known: where other tribes would capture fellow Africans and sell them as slave to the British. Then there are more intricate examples, like in Harlem during the civil rights movements, where their culture does not allow them to be together – punishing their love and keeping them separate. And there are so many other rich examples not only between white and black, but fellow tribes.

The Plot

This is a plot-laden book, and one that I needed to draw a little family map for. (By the way, trigger warning for rape). It illustrates the powers of fate – the way some are ‘gifted’ and others not – and the way that it becomes so much more complex. For both these women and their families, there is no easy way out and the ripples through their family tree echo through mother and child. Yet throughout, there is this golden thread that follows all these narratives, stringing them together, until the families merge into one.

Themes

There were also so many great themes here: the subjunctive nature of labels such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, as well as ‘black’ and ‘white’. In addition, there’s a fantastic feeling as the stories pull together, a cosmic serendipity of right-ness. We are witnesses to a glimpse into their lives, a segment of their story and made richer by knowing the stories of their ancestors as well. While it was difficult to get used to all the names, perspectives, and storylines, once you do, it is a rewarding experience. Each perspective deserves a book of its own.

And on the nature of the title; Homegoing. It can mean the process of going home, but for these characters nothing is simple. Even for those who grew up in America, their African American identity makes them feel conflicted about where their home is. And what is home when you don’t own it? When it belongs to someone else? How do we inhabit these stolen spaces? What is ownership when we cannot even own our own bodies? And – most importantly – based on these questions, how do we go home?

Overall,

Homegoing seems to be challenging us to break the cycle of imprisonment. Whether it be slavery, emotional extortion, or duty, Gyasi’s approach leaves us wondering who will be strong enough, and just how long it takes, to break the pattern and heal the family. It is like a trauma, one that haunts our subconscious and the very roots of our family tree. Just how long can we wait until we put those ghosts to rest?

It is deep, escaping a narrative that gives us a clear answer about home as well as a clear ‘hero’ story. It is real because its characters are scarred and flawed. But it asks so many important questions, brings up so many historical ghosts that need to be seen, and allows us to reflect on our own past in the process.

You should pick up Homegoing on Amazon(US), your local indie, and add it to Goodreads.

Discussion

Have you read this? What are your thoughts?

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