After reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi earlier this year, I was extremely interested in reading her previous debut novel, Homegoing, which tells the fictional stories of two half-sisters born in separate villages in eighteenth-century Ghana and their respective descendants.
And as though I weren’t already excited enough to read it, when I opened up to the first few pages and saw a family tree chart, I became even more hyped– who doesn’t love a book with a chart?
Told from a third person point of view, Homegoing begins with Effia, a young girl just coming into her womanhood. She and her father want her to marry the village’s chief-to-be Abeeku, but Effia’s Baaba has a different idea for Effia’s future, a plan which requires secrecy and strategy, and will mean that Effia’s fate and centuries of her posterity’s lives will forever be altered.
After Effia’s chapter, we meet Esi, Effia’s half-sister. Unlike Effia, Esi is captured by slave traders, leading to her far different and more tortured existence. Thus, Esi’s lineage continues overseas in America, and for generations her descendants struggle to make the best of the small lot they have been given in life.
“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.”Abronoma, Page 39
For the rest of the book, each chapter focuses on the next individual in the family tree line, alternating between Effia and Esi’s branches. Over centuries, the novel recounts the tales of individuals throughout slavery, sharecropping, the Great Migration, the Jazz era, the Civil Rights movement, up until the turn of the millennium. It is at times brutal to read of the characters’ suffering (rooted in the truth of actual historical accounts), and other times it is exquisitely beautiful the way their love of their family inspires them to endure.
There are quite a number of potentially triggering scenes, so if you plan to read Homegoing, here are the trigger warnings I noted: sexual assault & rape, racist speech, racist violence, sexism, child/spouse abuse, homophobia, whipping, drug addiction (heroin), suicide, murder, kidnapping.
Homegoing’s structure is incredibly compelling, as each story trickles down to the next family member. Some characters live to appear as elders in later vignettes, and other characters are lost to unfortunate circumstance or targeted hate crimes, their stories disappearing in that frustratingly final way that death has over existence. Family sagas dissipate as children are separated from their birth mothers, and Gyasi explores that frustration with characters like Kojo “Jo”:
Jo used to worry that his family line had been cut off, lost forever. He would never truly know who his people were, and who their people were before them, and if there were stories to be heard about where he had come from, he would never hear them. When he felt this way, Ma Aku would hold him against her, and instead of stories about family she would tell him stories about nations. The Fantes of the Coast, the Asantes of the Inland, the Akans.Page 130
This novel is a testament to how the most minute actions of our ancestors can have repercussions that span generations and the pervasiveness of generational trauma. While part of the family must reconcile with their unknown heritage–a family history stolen from them by the slave traders–the other part of the family learns what it means to embrace the spirits of the past and work towards healing bygone mistakes.
He had always said that the joining of a man and a woman was also the joining of two families. Ancestors, whole histories, came with the act, but so did sins and curses. The children were the embodiment of that unity, and they bore the brunt of it all.Page 21
While all of Homegoing‘s characters are unique and vibrant in their own way, showcasing a range of individual motivations and dispositions, arguably the first part of the book contains the stronger portrayals. Gyasi not only imagined a wide cast of family members for this novel, but also placed them within their proper time period, and as the latter half of the book wears on, it becomes apparent how Gyasi used the socio-political climate to weave the narrative for those characters. However, while the characters serve somewhat as props to illustrate the endurance of racism and racial policing, and how that insidious discrimination can prevent even a person’s best effort at improving their life, I personally don’t think that took away from my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I found that my reading accelerated in the second half, as I was eager to learn how each person fared.
And although some readers may find the ending of this novel a bit too convenient and perhaps empty-handed, I actually quite liked how Gyasi braided their two tales together, allowing all their legacies to culminate in healing, clarity, and a sense of belonging.
Not only was the concept of this novel exquisite (and an impressively skillful feat of historical research), but the writing was also exceptional. Gyasi writes stories with a descriptive poeticism that doesn’t ramble or overwhelm the reader, but rather guides the imagination. The prose never drags, and in moments of emotional climax, the writing builds and flows with momentum.
Having never quite read a generational saga like this, I was blown away by Homegoing. It captures the essence and the necessity of storytelling, the power of knowing our familial origins. It gives a voice to all those who have historically been silenced and reclaims part of what has been stolen from many. Homegoing reminds us why sharing our stories is sacred, and I recommend this book wholeheartedly to any reader.
With that, I will now leave you with a passage from the novel which I believe needs to be repeated:
“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experiences for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children… But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories… Whose story do we believe then?
We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?”Yaw, page 226
Thank you for reading!
Watch my reading vlog of Homegoing on YouTube:
For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page.