New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 320 pages. $26.95.
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing opens in the eighteenth century in what is modern-day Ghana, where a character named Effia is sold by her parents to an English governor. While Effia lives in luxury in the Cape Coast Castle, unbeknownst to her, her half-sister Esi is captured in warfare, and then raped and beaten in the ordure-filled dungeon below. The book subsequently moves over a period of three hundred years, with each chapter swapping between the two family branches. Effia’s Ghanaian descendants weather wars and colonialism; Esi’s are sold into slavery in America, and witness the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the Harlem Renaissance, and the heroin epidemic. The story ends with the reunification of the two family lines: Marcus, raised in New York, courts the bookish Marjorie, who, in an echo of Gyasi’s own life, moved from Ghana to America in her infancy.
Homegoing is made with care. Each chapter is from the point of view of one character, and as the chapters move chronologically and without skipping generations, each protagonist is the child of one we’ve formerly met. Some of the best storytelling occurs at the start of the novel. These chapters, set in Ghana, resonate with the orality of spoken history and myth that has elicited comparisons of Gyasi to Zora Neale Hurston. The book’s later chapters are reminiscent of the work of Helen Oyeyemi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Comparisons to Alex Haley’s Roots (which won the Pulitzer prize in 1976), are particularly apt.
Characters are a strong point throughout. One of the most affecting later chapters chronicles Willie’s marriage to Richard, who, unlike her, can “pass” as white in Harlem; what follows is marital breakdown. Another stand-out is “two-shovel” H, named for his prodigious coal-shoveling ability, which is revealed after he is sold into a chain gang. In a later chapter, set in Alabama, we see Marjorie’s love affair with a white boy who refuses to take a black student to the prom. It is no mean feat to wrest real characters from such racially freighted moments in history, but Gyasi frequently manages it.
Race and lost heritage play an enormous role in Gyasi’s novel. Though the characters are often mistreated in the US because of their race, they are simultaneously alienated from their African roots due to geographical separation, the anonymity of slavery, and the stories that never have the chance to pass from one generation to another. These stories are left to the reader alone.
Homegoing’s unusual structure perfectly amplifies Gyasi’s concern with colonialism. The linked collection has recently risen to prominence, with books like A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan) and Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout) garnering major prizes. Many linked collections are multi-perspectival. This makes them, as in the case of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the last two are novels, but read like linked collections), suited to showing how a group passes an original trauma through successive generations. Gyasi’s application of the linked story structure to the genealogy of the enslaved is particularly brilliant. By having the characters move chronologically through time without skipping generations, Gyasi draws a direct and unbroken line from the original trauma of slavery to the present day. She thereby argues, through the book’s very structure, that racism has not been extinguished over time, but merely institutionalized. Her wide temporal gauge is necessary to depict slavery’s propensity to constantly shift form.
Paradoxically, it is also the chronologically linked structure that poses the greatest challenge to Gyasi’s style. To keep continuity between stories, Gyasi inserts exposition; to keep thematic focus, she includes reflection. In one scene, the disfigured Yaw edifies his new students: “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? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?” This dose of surreptitious theory makes sense, but it feels like the reader is also being taught a lesson. Perhaps this is not a weakness, but merely an indication of the tightness with which Gyasi circles “slavery” as a topic. Some of her characters are reductive in the way of emblems, like Sonny, an NAACP activist, father of multiple illegitimate children and, later, a heroin addict, or Willie, who wishes to be a jazz singer, but is deemed too dark to occupy the stage and can express herself only through singing gospel music in church. If Gyasi’s goal is to depict the negative aspects of the African-American experience that stem from slavery, she has no choice but to address certain experiences that have in the past been linked to this group, but it feels like these stereotypes are sometimes unquestioningly imported, rather than combatted, subverted, and complicated; this is surprising given the intelligence and sensitivity Gyasi brings to treatments of identity elsewhere.
This takes us back to why Homegoing is important to read. In sum, this is a fine book, revealing ambition, emotional heat, an instinct for story, and a willingness to play with form and character. But the question of what gives a work value goes beyond these formal qualities and into the political. The goal of fiction is rarely to explore radical concepts, and more often to animate old ones. Art has explored the horrible (and ongoing) injustices of slavery to the point of satiety, but this is what makes such acts prime candidates for reanimation. Through fine craft, Homegoing sharpens the sting of a trauma that we should never stop feeling.