Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Release Date: 05/01/2017
Publisher: Viking (UK)
Pages: pp. 320 RRP: £12.99 (Hardback)
Kindle edition available here (£9.99)
Not since I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved have I been knocked down by a book, let alone a debut novel. Before I begin, I can safely say that Ghanian-American author Yaa Gyasi’s debut has deserved every bit of hype it got in the run up to release day, and it’s already a strong contender for one of my favourite releases of the year, even at this early stage.
Homegoing follows two half-sisters, Effia Otcher and Esi Asare, and the divergent paths their lives and the lives of their descendants take. Starting on the Gold Coast in the late eighteenth century, we see Effia sold by her father as a bride for James, a British slave trader, before being taken to live in Cape Coast Castle. In the dungeons below the castle, slaves are kept, prior to being transported to the Americas. Esi stands amongst these slaves, having being seized during a raid on her village, and is soon to be shipped across the ocean. Gyasi’s narrative then continues to follow the respective bloodlines, with each chapter focusing on a key figure in each respective family tree. These chapters feel as though a lot of painstaking research has gone into them, with Gyasi populating each one with well-defined characters, each of whom are left tragically adrift on the tides of history – be they on the Gold Coast, or ranging over large areas of the Americas. When it comes to harrowing depictions of the slave trade, the characters of Quey and Ness are of particular note. Quey, Effia’s mixed race son, is disgusted by his family’s business and wants no part of it, but is faced with the subsequent loss of home, wealth, and ultimately, what identity he has thus far held onto. Esi’s child Ness however, is born into slavery on a plantation, and provides a brutal insight to the lives of her fellow slaves – as her husband Sam’s failed escape attempt demonstrates.
After finishing reading through the novel, I found myself fascinated by the way in which Gyasi depicts love, particularly acts of physical love between her characters. Sex is depicted as both intimate and powerful – with almost a touch of the political to it (though this noticeably lessens as the novel progresses). Gyasi’s prose is memorably evocative throughout the novel, giving each of her characters a unique voice, and giving the world she focuses on a unique texture and pulse.
If I had to find fault with the work, however, it’s in the size of its sprawling cast. It can be difficult to keep track of some of the characters through the course of the novel – each chapter begins to feel more self-contained, and thus loses a feeling of connection through the work as a whole. Though it could be argued that this ‘confusion’ of sorts is perhaps indicative of the desire to forget the horrors of the slave trade, and perhaps this book is here to remind us of them. And one hell of a book it most certainly is.