Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: A review

 

Homegoing was Yaa Gyasi's debut novel, published in 2016. It is an ambitious work that covers almost three hundred years of history from the Gold Coast of Africa (later to be called Ghana, where, incidentally, the author was born) to life in America. Through eight generations of one family, it explores the history and the legacy of slavery.

The story begins with "Effia the Beauty" and her half-sister Esi. It is the eighteenth century on the Gold Coast where England holds sway. Effia is married off to a wealthy Englishman named James Collins who is responsible for overseeing operations at Cape Coast Castle which is the headquarters of the British slave trade. Esi is the daughter of Asante warrior. She is captured by slave traders and sold to the British and, unknown to Effia, she ends up in the dungeons underneath the Castle before ultimately being shipped off to America.

Esi has a daughter named Ness. In 1796, her daughter is taken from her and sold. In order to survive such horrors, Esi has hardened her heart and her daughter learned to associate real love with a hardened heart. Ness would always miss "the gray rock of her mother's heart."

In her new home, Ness met and was married to Sam, another slave, and they had a son called Kojo. Ness and Sam risked their lives in a bid for freedom so that Kojo could grow up free.

The descendants of both Esi and Effia make efforts to break free from the past and to live in freedom. Throughout the generations of the family, the stories of these efforts are passed on, but in time, the oral tradition fades. A modern-day descendant named Marcus works on his doctorate in sociology at Stanford. Through diligent research and study and finally a trip to Ghana, Marcus pieces together the history of his family.

There is so much history covered in this book that it is hard to do it justice in a summation. Gyasi methodically relates the continuous chronological record of three centuries and there is a lot there. But her story is most relatable and most understandable when she focuses on individual stories and relationships. It is through these individuals that we can come to understand, even a little bit, what the slave trade has done to families throughout the centuries. The horrors of slavery are brought home to us on an intimate, personal level. I have daughters. To imagine those daughters being sold like any piece of merchandise is more than I can bear. I can fully understand why Esi had to "harden her heart" in order to survive. 

In her ambitious debut, Gyasi showed her instinctive gift for storytelling. Through her writing, she has given us a deep-rooted and emotional understanding of the savage realities of the slave trade and the damage that continues even today to those whose ancestors were sold like cattle. She also gives us an appreciation of human resilience that has endured such savagery and managed to overcome it. To overcome it but never to forget. As one character says, "When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free."

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


Comments

  1. I liked this book a lot but, loved her last book: Transcendent Kingdom even more.

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    1. "Transcendent Kingdom" is my favorite of hers, but this one is very good.

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  2. So, if I haven't read any of her books, which one should I read first? This one, or Transcendent Kingdom?

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    1. This one was her first novel and "Transcendent Kingdom" the second. If I were starting over, I would probably read them in the order they were published in order to better experience the evolution of her writing.

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  3. This author has been on my radar for quite some time. Hopefully, your review has given me the incentive to get myself in gear and read this book.

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    1. She's a very good writer. I think you would enjoy her.

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  4. I heard Yaa Gyasi speak (over Zoom) in September of 2020. The link to her reading is here: https://inprinthouston.org/for-readers/inprint-archive-of-readings/inprint-yaa-gyasi-reading/

    I thought both Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom were very good. I liked TK a little more than this book. Homegoing review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1902379593. Transcendent Kingdom review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3796067626.

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  5. I've seen so much about this and her other book, Transcendent Kingdom. Don't know if I can ever make room for them at this rate, so thank you for the review!

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    1. We are blessed with so many good writers right now that it is almost impossible to read them all.

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  6. I still need to read this novel. I am looking forward to her writing.

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    1. Her writing is definitely something for you to look forward to. I think you will like it.

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  7. Lovely review as usual. I have Homegoing in my 'tbr' pile and have been putting it off. Hopefully. I'll read it soon.

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    1. Thank you. It was an excellent book. I think you will like it.

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