Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
by Jennie Treadway-Miller
Every once in a while I read a book so intense that I have to put it down and breathe. Or cry, or do some sort of mundane task in order to calm down. The Kite Runner is one of those books. In parts, so was The Devil of Nanking and Between Shades of Gray.
Homegoing begins in 18th Century Ghana. Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, don’t know the other exists, and thus begins a 300-year journey that follows their genealogical lines into modern time.
Effia, known for her unmatched beauty among her tribe, is married off to a wealthy and influential Englishman who oversees the British slave trade headquartered on the Gold Coast. She raises their son, Quey, in the Cape Coast Castle, a lush and expensive living Effia has never known, but beneath the floorboards lies another world. It is in the dungeons of that same castle where captives lay shackled together, knowing the Door of No Return leads to a cross-Atlantic slave ship.
Esi is the daughter of a tribal warrior, strong and proud, but when she is captured, kept in the castle dungeon, and sold into slavery, her status is erased, as if her position in the tribal region never mattered at all. Esi develops nerves of steel, a sort of resolve that grows from the gut. She enters the slave trade and gives birth to a daughter, Ness. The family line continues.
From there, two narratives unfold – one in Africa, one in America. It is one long family story, but it is also fourteen interlaced short stories. Each chapter is told from the next family member in line, offering a unique perspective that spotlights how oral history morphs and shifts depending on the audience. For the family in Africa, there is honor, recognition, veneration, but for those plucked from their land, from their touchstone and their identity, there is bitterness and a sting that lingers as a constant undercurrent.
I want to say that author Yaa Gyasi streamlines this family’s history effortlessly, but I know better. From the level of detail, the pitch-perfect characterization, and the way in which we walk through three centuries without even thinking about what year we’re in, it’s clear that her research was extensive and exhaustive. Her writing style is beautiful. There’s no way it was effortless.
A few things, though. Perhaps a word of caution to new readers. The book is not easy to read. It’s heavy. In fact, I read Homegoing alongside a friend of mine, a two-person book club of sorts, and I’m certain I texted “This is heavy” to her a handful of times. What other word is there to describe the weight of this grave sin? The generational loss of life and dignity? The horrors of what we’ve done to each other?
It’s all so heavy. And yet, it is necessary to read. I could write a treatise on the things I learned from Homegoing, but for now I’ll whittle it two – one historical, one intellectual – one lesson each from both parts of the book.
First, a history lesson from Part One: I didn’t realize the intricacies of slavery’s origin. I readily admit that I thought armies of foreigners raided African villages and tribes, ripping sons and daughters from the arms of their parents to be sent across the ocean like chattel. In some cases, that’s what happened.
What I did not realize was that inner-tribe quarrels and conflicts among hostile tribes were manipulated to benefit the slave trade. Either I never learned this, or I did and forgot. Either way, it was a shocking revelation to read of one African tribesman capturing another and handing him over to the British. There were sentences I needed to read twice because I couldn’t wrap my brain around what I was reading. Revenge, greed, power. The African slave trade was a multi-faceted beast.
Whatever the origins, however they transpired, it does not detract from the trade’s immorality and inequity.
Second, an intellectual lesson from Part Two: There is a noticeable shift in tone when Part Two of Homegoing begins. H – that’s his name – is a coal miner stuck in the convict leasing system in post-Civil War Alabama. Slavery both exists and doesn’t exist, depending on where you are, depending on who’s in charge. The tone of the story shifts from a combination of inner-strength and desperation to outright anger. The outrage is palpable. It practically jumps off the page.
As the narrative moves forward for Esi’s generations, the anger stirs, even as characters become generations removed from the Door of No Return. Each descendent experiences both outright and subtle forms of prejudice, but there’s something deeper at play. There’s something else there, like a haunting, a shadow, something even the characters can’t nail down. It lives and breathes under the surface.
This is something I’ve not understood or even considered before reading this book. Something has lingered in the family line. It does not favor the successful or unsuccessful, the strong or the weak. It just exists as a residual effect of being ripped from one’s country, family, and home, no matter how far the generations stretch out.
When you consider how the residue sticks, everything exists in a new light.
Homegoing is a masterpiece, both as a literary feat and a historical framework. The family tree printed at the beginning of the book is only necessary at first. Gyasi was generous to provide it, but her ability to craft fourteen distinct people, stories, and legacies stands on its own.
I will keep Homegoing on my shelves indefinitely.
Jennie Treadway-Miller is a writer and photographer living in the rolling foothills of East Tennessee. When she’s not running or reading, she’s homeschooling her two sons and enjoying life with her husband. Together, they enjoy the outdoors, college football, and board games. Read more at jenniecreates.com.
Purchase a copy of the reviewed book through our associate link and help support the journal!