Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
There is no question, this book is stunning: in its scope, its ambition, in what it can teach us and in the skill on display. In Homegoing, a portrait of a West African family in 1754 feels as true to life as dialogue between kids at a California pool party today. But if to read it is to be in a constant state of awe, it is also to experience a sense of loss. Not just from of the painful lessons of history, but also, as a reader, in the necessary incompleteness of the stories it contains.
Towards the end of the novel a modern-day student, Marcus, considers the monumental task of writing an academic paper on an aspect of black history. His task is also Yaa Gyasi’s task in writing Homegoing, his challenges her challenges: how to explain “the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large?” He fails to pick one moment in history –– how to talk about the convict leasing system without talking about the Great Migration? How to mention that without talking about Harlem?
This was Gyasi’s own problem and her solution is elegant and bold: tell it all. Tell every moment; from when the first African slaves were plucked from their homes and shipped, right through eight generations to the present day. And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, she takes two alternative pathways through that time: the descendants of two half-sisters Esi and Effia. One sold into slavery, the other the wife of a slaver. One thread evolving in America, the other in Africa.
The result is a chronological epic moving quickly through the generations, each chapter telling a different tale. It’s almost like a collection of short stories, except that each section adds to the next and each character’s experience is inextricably linked to the one before. This sense of intricate interconnection is powerful, but just as powerful are the missed connections, or the invisible ones.
As a reader, it’s hard to shake the addiction to storytelling norms: as each character is separated from his or her family and fails to find their way back, or when they don’t even know what the family links are, it’s a loss, a disappointment of sorts, for the reader. And the losses pile up in the book.
It’s also hard to let some of the characters go, each is snatched from us before we’re ready. That I wanted more from each story is a credit to the fabulous characterisation and writing in each chapter, but that didn’t stop it from being frustrating. Every chapter could be a captivating novel in itself, and throughout the book I yearned to revisit the original sisters.
But loss is an appropriate thing to feel reading this book. It complements the horror and pain of the stories being told. I didn’t find Homegoing as shocking or visceral as that other recent, acclaimed, slavery novel, The Underground Railroad. On the surface it feels gentler and more thoughtful; there are horrific details in there, but they are just enough to set the context. In the end though, I think Homegoing may actually hit a little harder.
And if reading it hits hard, then writing it is harder, researching it harder still, and nothing comes close to the real lives behind the stories. As Gyasi said in a recent interview, “The writing was never as difficult as the research” and, considering his paper, her character Marcus reflects, “It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it”.
Reading Homegoing, the most we can hope for is a shade more understanding and empathy than we had before. If we also get a sense that we’re a part of the continuum of suffering it describes, all the better. And if we are jolted from our storytelling expectations, yearning for missed connections and denied the satisfaction of a contrived happily-ever-after, then that is entirely as it should be.
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at those precious stolen moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (Penguin, 2017). 978-0241975237, 320 pp., paperback.