Homegoing is a work of fiction about a family history that spans two continents, North America and Africa. It is the story of half-sisters: Effia and Esi whose lives take on very disparate paths. Effia is married off to a white British slave trader and lives a comfortable life at “the Castle” – The Cape Coast Castle, the “point of no return” – as it is still called today – where the slave trade administration took place. Her half-sister, Esi, is captured and her life unfolds in America.
Yaa Gyasi writes, not only about the slave trade but about a family that still carries with it the scars of this horrific part of history. She goes back and forth between Ghana and America, introducing a new character – every one of the fourteen characters in the book has been dedicated an entire chapter – and weaving that character’s life to tie in with the historical as well as the future characters. The book is in two parts, and spans more than 200 years of slavery, years in which every character ties into the plot. This was one of the things that detracted from my full enjoyment of the book. As interesting as some of the characters are, and as cleverly as the author integrates every present, past, and future into the storytelling, it would have served the book better if it was a longer book. It has the makings of an epic family history, but in many cases, we get just a glimpse of the characters as she traces their lineage back to one of the other characters, but sometimes fails to expand on them sufficiently for the reader to fall in love, or not, with the characters.
The sheer number of characters forces the reader to go back and forth between the book and the family tree that details all the relationships. This added some tedium to the reading. That aside, this was enjoyable and well researched. From her details of how the different ethnicities of West Africa were complicit in the Slave Trade, to her descriptions of the conditions in the dungeons of the Castle – where the slaves were kept before being shipped off to the Americas, the historical telling comes alive. When she describes Harlem, and its jazz culture; the coal mines in which poor whites and black people worked, and the daily life in a racist America, you feel the rhythm of the music, the desperation of the inhumane working conditions, and the seething hatred of discrimination.
Despite all of this, the book fell short of my expectations. I had been really excited, as I always am about authors who are either from or who write about Ghana but came away feeling like she had barely scratched an itch. This was a book club read and it was a bit disheartening to hear that I was not the only who thought Homegoing could have been more.
It is still worth reading though, not only for the history but also for the insight into how the history of generations of African-Americans can be understood from an imagined yet truly revelatory point of view.