This was going to be a very different review, and perhaps it could be, if the events of recent weeks hadn’t offered such visible and horrific evidence of the historic and systemic racism of the United States. Given the current state of affairs, it is impossible not to write a review of a book that provides such a detailed, devastating, account of the both the personal and societal effects of slavery over generations and across continents.
Gyasi’s story begins in the Gold Coast of 18th century, with two half sisters who are separated by slavery. One sister, Esi, is captured, sold, and sent to America, while the other, Effia, is married off to a white British government official/slave trader and remains in present-day Ghana. The rest of the novel traces the lives of the descendants of the sisters, with chapters alternating between Ghana and the United States, progressing generation by generation, up until the present day. (Though Gyasi does not mention today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement by name, there are gestures toward it.)
The book shows the larger effects of racism in the United States - the Fugitive Slave Act, the Great Migration, the crack epidemic - in emotional detail, through the lived experiences of Esi’s descendants. Importantly, it also depicts some of the less widely-known Jim Crow era practices, for example, the continuation of post-Civil War slavery through convict leasing in the coal mines of Alabama. On Effia’s descendants’ side, Gyasi provides an even less widely-presented perspective, that of the effects of slavery on those who remained in Africa. It is a hugely ambitious effort, and it is a testament to the skill of the author that each chapter will leave you wanting more; more information about the inner lives of the characters, more knowledge of the everyday.
In short, Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel is a beautifully written book, one that can be either healing, enraging, or eye-opening (or all three), depending on your situation. It is a book that I would recommend without reservation, even if I didn’t believe it is imperative that everyone -- particularly those of us living in the United States -- understand more about our country’s racist past, the effects of which are so obviously and painfully a part of our present.
In that spirit, it is worth noting (without giving anything away) that the novel’s ending is a hopeful one. And this is the ultimate message of Homegoing: that, however deeply rooted, we can, and do, heal from the wounds of our past.
By Yaa Gyasi
305 pp. Alfred A. Knopf
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