Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
I don’t know why it took me so long to read Homegoing. Well no, actually, that’s not true. I was worried that the hype had raised my expectations too much, and that I would end up disappointed. I am so happy to say that this was not the case – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the hype didn’t do the book justice.
As I’m sure you know, this is a multi-generational story – it is the type of book that starts with a family tree. I am not usually the sort of person who enjoys big family sagas like this, as I tend to prefer books to focus on a smaller cast of characters – in my mind, that allows for greater depth of character. (I also tend to get confused if there are lots of characters. For example, I tried to read 100 Years of Solitude but just ended up hopelessly lost.) However. Homegoing was exceptional in the fact that although each generation only gets one chapter, there is amazing life and depth to every single one. Gyasi is clearly a fantastic author. I was interested/involved in the plight of every single character, even though I knew that I would not experience their point-of-view again. I honestly think that every character could have had a whole novel about them, but somehow the single chapters felt in no way condensed or confined in their subject matter.
Another astonishing aspect of this novel was the research that has obviously gone into it. Gyasi manages to evoke very specific times and places in history without ever bogging the reader down with unnecessary historical material. I had very little knowledge about the Gold Coast and British colonisation, but I felt that I understood the historical context in which the characters were living. I did have some prior knowledge of 1920s Harlem from studying the Harlem Renaissance, and it was really exciting for me to pick up on small references to important places and figures that are peppered throughout certain chapters. I can’t even imagine how long Gyasi must have spent researching this book, let alone writing it. For that, she must absolutely be commended.
I’m not going to lie, though – this book was very difficult to read. If you are sensitive to violence (especially sexual violence), drug use, slavery or torture, go into this carefully. Yaa Gyasi holds nothing back. However, saying that, I don’t think it is inappropriately used, or over-used. Every incident of violence brings the reader closer to true experiences of colonialism in Ghana and America.
Homegoing is without a doubt one of the best books I will read in 2017. I would recommend it to everyone. I would be very much surprised if this didn’t become a classic of our time.
NB: displaced MC for Diversity Bingo 2017