Promising debut novel Homegoing covers generations of stories

by Dina Kleiner / Beacon Staff • November 3, 2016

There are novels about colonialism. There are novels about the Civil Rights era. There are novels about race in present day America. But rarely do novels cover all of those pasts evenly, with one historical event unfolding into the next. Yet Gyasi tackles all of those moments and more in Homegoing, a winding story following the lineage of two half-sisters in 18th-century West Africa.

Homegoing begins with two half-sisters born in what is now Ghana, with each woman unaware of the other’s existence. Effia is married off to an English colonizer and lives at the Cape Coast Castle, where captured Africans are held underground in dungeons before being sold in the Atlantic slave trade. Effia doesn’t know that Esi, her half-sister, is imprisoned in the dungeon beneath her.

The novel’s first two chapters begin with the perspectives of Effia and Esi, but their own personal narratives are never revisited. Each chapter in Homegoing revolves around a different character, jumping ahead from generation to generation and alternating between Effia’s bloodline in Africa and Esi’s bloodline in America.

Homegoing follows Effia’s descendents through colonialism and tribal warfare in Africa, and Esi’s descendents through America’s slave plantations, the Great Migration, and jazz clubs in Harlem. Children become parents, and parents become grandparents, chapter after chapter until characters who were central protagonists in their own part of the novel become faraway figures mentioned in passing by future generations. That’s what makes the novel so breathtaking in scope. Homegoing reminds us that what we know about our elders—as rich in detail as our knowledge may be—is only a small part of a long, sprawling story that trails back hundreds of years.

While Homegoing is a novel, it can at times feel more like a collection of stories that have been strung together. Reading Homegoing feels less like you’re experiencing the novel’s plot with the characters so much as it feels like you’re floating above them—dipping into their lives when their personal narratives have reached a turning point and then dipping back out to view their family lineage from a bird’s eye view. In this sense, the novel comes across as voyeuristic and even distant. You move so fast through time that you’re never totally at home with any one character.

Still, Gyasi writes characters with such precision and elegance it’s as though she’s performed a trick—you don’t realize how invested you’ve become in a character until the chapter ends and you’re forced to jump ahead to the next generation. For that reason, coming to the end of each chapter in Homegoing is a little bit heartbreaking every time.

There’s Ness, whose efforts to escape slavery result in gruesome tragedy and the separation of her family. Abena in West Africa is shamed by her village for having an affair with her married childhood friend before running away, pregnant and alone. Willie moves from Pratt City, Alabama to Harlem, New York, where her lighter-skinned husband leaves her to pass for white. And in present day America, Marcus feels disenchanted at Stanford University. As Gyasi puts it, “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.”

It seems like a waste to leave characters after 20 or so pages when any one of their stories would make for an incredible novel individually. During moments of whiplash between chapters and major historical moments, the novel feels like it’s bitten off more than it can chew. Homegoing covers so much of the history of both America and Africa that one wonders if it’s able to fully cover any one country or time period at all.

But maybe that’s not the point. Rather than fully delve into the Civil War era in America, or colonialism in Africa, Gyasi chooses instead to hover momentarily above many moments throughout history. She crafts visceral scenes to emotionally engage readers in what’s actually a lesson about how tragedy and the aftermath of imprisonment can seep deep into the fabric of families and the fabric of a nation.

Homegoing is overly ambitious, but the vividness of Gyasi’s characters are what really ground her work. Her craft is well-trained and even-handed. Her coverage of 18th-century marriage customs in Africa and the interactions between American high school students are illustrated with equal skill and insight.

Even more impressive is the fact that the 300-page work is Gyasi’s first novel, and she’s only twenty-six years old. I finished Homegoing with the impression that the author’s biggest work is still on its way. Her ability to illustrate intense scenes with a graceful tone is obvious in Homegoing, but her potential doesn’t really feel fully fulfilled. It’s often said that an author’s second or third novel is the work they are eventually known for. After reading Homegoing, I hope that saying is true. I hope I haven’t read the last of Gyasi, whose talent still feels somewhat undiscovered and whose first novel left me feeling as though I’m on the cusp of reading something truly great, instead of just ambitious.