First published in 2016
My rating: 5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
The Short Of It:
Quite possibly the best book I've read so far this year. Such a good story -- but important and timely too.
The Long Of It:
I am in awe of Yaa Gyasi and her masterful novel, "Homegoing." The creativity, the storytelling, the characters, the beautiful writing and the way she so deftly -- almost subtly -- captured the issue of race in America captivated me.
The novel opens with twin stories of a pair of half-sisters hailing from two different villages in 1700s Ghana; they share a mother but they're unknown to each other. One sister, Effia, is married off to a powerful Englishman involved in the slave trade, while the other, Esi, is kidnapped into slavery and crammed on a ship bound for America.
In alternating chapters -- interconnected vignettes, really -- about 20 pages each, Gyasi tells the stories of Effia's and Esi's descendants, spanning all the way from the eighteenth century to present day. Effia's line stays in Ghana, weathering tribal wars, fights with the British, the slave trade, years of bad harvests, ostracism, and cruel missionaries. Esi's descendants grow up in America with hardships of their own: slavery, racism, drugs, broken families. Too, though, they all persevere, they live, they love, they grow. Meanwhile the historical backdrop evolves around our characters in both settings.
Gyasi shows off some awesome writing chops with her debut novel. The format of the story is unique and clever -- and it totally could've gone wrong if not done with such a skilled hand. Two dozen pages is typically not enough time to tell a detailed story, much less make readers fall in love with a character. But Gyasi imbues each chapter with so much voice and all the right snapshots of a life that I felt like I really knew each of the 14 protagonists at the end of every chapter. And then she weaves bits of the previous generation's story into the next one, so we find out how each character fared through the eyes of their children. I loved the idea of taking two women -- whose lives started off much the same but diverged so completely -- and giving the reader side-by-side accounts of the generations to come. It invites us compare and contrast, and while there are shocking differences there are also surprising similarities between these two families an ocean apart.
So many important issues are covered in "Homegoing" -- but so organically, tucked so neatly into Gyasi's enthralling stories, that I barely noticed I was getting a lesson on African history and culture, on U.S. history, on slavery, on the very troubled history of race relations in America, and it's all so very relevant considering what's going on in our country these days. Gyasi's novel has many other themes running through it too, and the one that interested me the most was identity. What shapes an identity? Your gender, your skin color, the way you talk, your beliefs, the way you're perceived by your community? What happens when your identity doesn't fit neatly into a box? What happens when who you know you are is different from the way society sees you?
I'd say "Homegoing" is a must-read. It's a gorgeously written, fascinating, one-of-a-kind book that I just could not put down. It's a damn good work of literary fiction, but it's also educational and current -- an important contribution to the conversation our country is having about race right now. When we talk about the lack of diversity in books, this author and this novel are exactly what we should be pushing for. I know it's one of the very best books I'll read this year.