Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoingThe Premise: Effia and Esi are half-sisters (not that they know it) in eighteenth century Ghana, whose lives take very different turns. Effia is married off to an English soldier and living in relative comfort, while Esi is a prisoner in the dungeons beneath, soon to be sold into slavery. Homegoing begins with these women, then alternates between descendants of each until reaching the present day.

Thoughts: I was absorbed in Homegoing from the very beginning. Gyasi creates such a strong image of Effia’s life, cursed with a beautiful face and a cruel mother, and the reader is able to get to know her well, as she escapes one traumatic home for one that is more luxurious but still dangerous. When Esi’s story begins, dovetailing with Effia’s, Gyasi neatly accomplishes the trick of securing the reader’s interest in two linked but contrasting narratives. Other novels have sought to perform the same trick and failed, only serving to confuse the reader; while I will admit to keeping a constantly updated family tree next to me while reading Homegoing, my occasional confusion was more than compensated by my immense enjoyment. My fear in novel which encompasses so many different individual stories is always that I will fail to engage with some of them and find myself longing for the ones that got me hooked at the outset; there was no risk of this whatsoever when reading Homegoing, because every aspect of the narrative is enthralling.
When Esi is sold into slavery, it means her descendants’ stories take place in America, which allows Gyasi to expand into the impact of slavery, as well as more modern aspects of race relations. Some of this reminded me of the equally excellent The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and both novels provide a visceral and harrowing account of life on the plantations. Meanwhile, the descendants of Effia witness war between competing factions in Ghana, also dealing with the impact of the slave trade. Gyasi’s writing is so wonderful that Homegoing never seems like an “issues” novel; rather, the real-life backdrop to the lives of her creations serves to add greater tension and interest. Although completely different in style, reading Homegoing gave me some of the pleasant feelings I experienced when reading Edward  Rutherfurd’s historical novels, like New York and London, both of which give a comprehensive account of a city’s history through generations of connected families. My only complaint about Homegoing is that, unlike Rutherfurd’s wrist-endangering epics, it is relatively short: only about 300 pages. But what excellent pages they are.

In Conclusion: Homegoing is a really extraordinary novel. Its scale is vast and sweeping, spanning from Africa to the USA, over more than 200 years; in taking on such a huge swathe of history, Gyasi has produced something that feels genuinely important. I already want to read it again and can see it becoming a true favourite in the future.

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