Thursday, December 1, 2016

#50 [2016/CBR8] "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi

"How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it--not apart from it, but inside of it."

Homegoing (2016) is a far-reaching and impressive first novel by Yaa Gyasi. The book begins in the late 1700's on the coast of Western Africa with two teenage half-sisters. Both sisters are beautiful. Effia is "married" to the British, Gold Palace Governor while her half-sister Esi (unknown to Effia) is captured and sold off to the British and shipped off to become a slave in America. The book follows the progeny of each of these women through hundreds of years. One family line is caught in the horrific reality of slavery in America, while the other family line is, for a while, instrumental in the slave trade on the African side. Each chapter follows one child from each generation, switching between Effia's and Esi's offspring.

I was very impressed by this book. The scope of seven generations, two continents, slavery, war, and about fourteen different protagonists is a lot to keep track of when writing a novel. With very little time, Gyasi hit some important historical milestones and gave glimpses into reality for her protagonists across centuries. It almost read like a book of linear short stories that were tied together by kinship. Many of the characters and their stories were heartbreaking and memorable. A young child born into slavery is able to make it to freedom because of the sacrifice of his mother, only to have his free-born wife kidnapped and dragged back to the South many years later. Many of the characters highlighted aspects of American and African culture that developed because of the slave trade.

My one concern about this novel is that it covers so much ground that it was sometimes hard for me to feel connected to the characters. The first couple of chapters involving Effia and Esi worked very well for me. They both felt fully developed and I was emotionally engaged with them. However, the farther we got away from these characters, the harder time I had connecting. The beginning of each chapter was always an abrupt break from the one before: a different continent and a stranger brought new to the page. It always took some time to get my bearings, and the later characters did not feel as whole as Effia and Esi. In addition, there was relatively little description of the places and contexts of things. I had fewer problems with this in the American chapters because I am already more familiar with American history. However, many of the later African chapters were harder for me to imagine because I didn't already have a picture of the place in my head.

I'm not sure if it would even be possible to create such a sweeping novel and include the kind of detail that I wanted. But this was an impressive, sweeping novel, and I'm glad I read it.

"How could he explain to Marjorie that he wasn't supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn't in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance."

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