‘You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’
The ‘Must Read Books of 2017’ lists are crammed with incredibly promising debut novels. Few are generating more buzz than Yaa Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing. This book isn’t perfect by any means, but, on the whole, I’d say that this marks a rare occasion when I think something actually lives up to its hype.
Before I proceed, a note of warning: I realise that this is more a discussion than a review. I seemed to have a lot of thoughts to disentangle and I could only do so by writing. For this reason, I may have been a bit spoilery so proceed with caution!
Gyasi sets herself the ambitious task of covering the history and legacy of slavery in just 300 pages. The novel begins in the closing decades of the 18th century and ends at the turn of the 21st. She relies on structure to help her frame and manage this narrative. The story originates with Effia and Esi, two sisters who never meet. Effia marries a white slave trader whilst Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters examine the consequences of the sisters’ contrasting fates by focusing on their descendants. Effia’s line remains in what will later become Ghana’s Gold Coast; Esi’s descendants find themselves in America.
‘You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.’
Homegoing thus reads like a collection of interconnected short stories. This device enables Gyasi to demonstrate just how much family history is determined by the fickleness of fate. Or, as she puts it: “How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another.”
But it is slavery, not fate, that is Gyasi’s main focus. Not much of what she has to say on this topic feels new but her depiction of her characters’ suffering is so visceral it stresses just how much such things bear repeating. One area where I felt Gyasi really stood out here was in her unflinching confrontation of Africans’ complicity in the slave trade, something I’d never really read about or considered before:
The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.
At times, Gyasi writes with such direct insight and definitive wisdom that Homegoing has the whiff of modern classic about it. I felt she was at her best when considering the legacy of slavery. She considers the physical impact through characters like Ness, who is beaten regularly by her owner:
Ness’s skin was no longer skin really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.
Through characters like H, Gyasi explores the psychological impact:
No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.
What Homegoing ultimately shows is that, no matter how far we move down the matrilineal lines, this impact is felt; it is each generation’s legacy to the next. For Marjorie and Marcus, with whose narrative the novel closes, the legacy is a sense of alienation from both their country of origin and their country of birth:
‘I don’t fit here or there.’
Homegoing demonstrates an awe-inspiring talent but is by no means perfect. As other reviewers have pointed out, the novel’s structure and the scope of its ambition are what mark it out and, at times, bring it down. As we dart through the centuries, Gyasi’s creations become less like flesh and blood characters and more like ciphers. In a similar vein, it sometimes felt like I was being fed information rather than being enveloped in a compelling narrative that would nonetheless still supply me with the relevant facts, just in a more subtle way.
That aside, Homegoing is deserving of its place on those ‘Must Read’ lists and reading it will introduce you to a young writer with remarkable gifts.