By: Yaa Gyasi
Published: June 7, 2016 by Knopf
Genres: Adult, Literary Fiction
Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
“In my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a
woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”
– Homegoing, page 39
That quote just about sums up the plot of this book. Homegoing is the tale of a pair of separated Ghanaian half-sisters, Effia and Esi. The story starts in 18th century Ghana. One sister, Effia, remains in Ghana, while Esi is sold as a slave and shipped to America. The book then follows each sister’s descendants for the next six generations, right up to the 21st century.
I was a bit sceptical when I started this book, because it didn’t seem possible to me that the author could encompass such a broad span of time in so few pages. But it worked! Homegoing flips back and forth between the two family lines, focusing on one descendant from each generation. I sometimes find that family dramas can feel a bit too mundane and get bogged down in the minutiae of everyday living, but the format really propelled the book forward. I also thought that getting only a peek into each generation would be unsatisfying and would affect how much I cared about the characters. However, while I might not have been overly attached to any specific character, I was very invested in the success of the families overall.
I haven’t read very many books set in Africa and I love historical fiction, so it was really interesting to learn a bit about the conflicts in Ghana and the British occupation there. I have read some books set during those time periods in America, but I have to admit, the majority have been from the perspectives of white characters. So, while I’ve read books about, for example, the civil war and slavery, Homegoing provided a very different insight than a book like Gone with the Wind.
Without getting too political, I think Homegoing was released at a perfect time. So many of the issues and racial prejudices that were widely held centuries ago are still in evidence today, and this book was pretty eye-opening in terms of showing the effects of such things.
I honestly think this book will one day be considered a classic and cannot recommend it enough.