Homegoing: An uncompromising and astonishing book

Published: September 3, 2016
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Every year, there comes a novel with the kind of pre-publication hype that puts all other contemporary writing in shade. There are endorsements by popular writers, generous blurbs printed on back covers by famous critics and talks of million-dollar book deals and film rights. This year, that book comes in the shape of Homegoing, the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi, a 26-year-old Ghanaian-American writer.

One particular feature of such marketing campaigns and publicity tactics is that more than often, the novel shatters the hopes of the readers; it becomes an anti-climax to their fecund anticipations that are fermented by the abundance of praise and excitement that surrounds the book. In the case of Homegoing, the only exception to the trend is that this novel actually lives up to the hype or at least some of it anyway.

Homegoing is an uncompromising and astonishing book, a novel, which within the startling economy and efficacy of its 300 pages, grapples with the horrors of slavery during the course of some 250 years of American and African history. The scope of this book is remarkable and the ambition of its author – overwhelming and praiseworthy.

It is obviously not easy to give narrative shape to multiple centuries of the meddlesome histories of two different continents and to offer subtly created characters to carry this task, however, Yaa Gyasi, who seems to be a born storyteller, summons her instinctive abilities as a writer to give us a story that is at once compelling and startling, intimate and moving.

At the beginning of the novel we meet Effia who is born on Ghana’s coastal town of Fanteland. On the night of her birth, a staggering fire envelopes the town and earns Effia the name of the Fire-child, while her mother escapes leaving Effia in the care of her stepmother. On another similar night Esi, Effia’s half-sister, is born. The two would never know of each other let alone meet as their only source of reconciliation is a pair of black stones that their mother had given them.

As soon as Effia reaches womanhood, she is married off to the newly arrived British governor in Ghana, James Collins. They live on the upper floor of their luxurious castle on Cape Coast, while in the underground dungeon of the castle there are people that no one talks about, and no one thinks they exist, or at least they pretend not to. While Effia enjoys her married life, Esi finds herself trapped amongst other slaves in the basement of the castle who are waiting to be transported to an unknown, unheard-of place referred to as the ‘New World.’

From then on, the novel moves in a smooth river of alternating chapters, half of which are set in prehistoric Ghana and the other half in America. These chapters, through a wide ranging cast of characters, trace eight generations of Effia and Esi’s family. With each chapter the book briskly alternates between continents and generations. As a result the book reads like a collection of linked short stories more than a novel since each chapter presents us with new characters and new settings, each of which are somehow, in an uncanny way, linked to its predecessors.

Gyasi moves between these chapters, continents, and generations with an uncommon assurance. With great poise each chapter dazzles with its own unique details and characters, concocting a kind of time-lapse mirage that gives us an intimate view of the lives of black folks in America and in their native Africa.

Gyasi dexterously illustrates the struggles of people against the savage realities of slavery and the mental and physical damage that it inflicted upon them and shows us how the trauma was passed down from one generation to the next and across borders. As a result, it is the kind of book that, owing to Gyasi’s restrained style and chiselled prose, can be emotionally devastating without being sentimental, critical without being patronising.

At its best, it’s a devastating book that encapsulates the eerie chemistry of oppression and degradation between slaves and their masters. Furthermore, it breathes life into the understated relationships between characters; mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters.

The novel caries clear and potent influences of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and yet, it solely seems to be a product of the hyper-creativity of Gyasi’s prolific mind. The chapters set in Africa have a haunting resonance to them while those set in American seem a bit contrived as they jump and skip over several important historical events.

As Gyasi swiftly moves from one character’s life to the next the reader yearns to know more, and just when the intangible relationship of intimacy between the character and the reader is formed Gyasi moves on to the next chapter, the next character, plunging the reader into a void and giving the reader the autonomy of sculpting the path of the abandoned characters’ future.

However, even in moments when the author seems to be struggling with the weight of her subject matter, when the burden of history becomes too daunting, it is easy to see the author’s ambition, her clear-sightedness and the authority she has over the task.

By the end, Gyasi convinces us of her tremendous powers as a novelist and by offering an insider’s account of the brutalities they experienced; she makes us experience the resilience of her characters and the haunting power of their inexorable sacrifices. With an unwavering scalpel of her artistic eye, she scrapes at the wounds that slavery permanently left in the collective conscience, identity, and memory of those it inflicted.

Hurmat Kazmi

Hurmat Kazmi

The author is a Karachi-based freelance writer.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.