REVIEW: A Stunning New Novel of Historical Horrors, from Africa to America

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Knopf. 320 pages.


By Heather Scott Partington

“‘When you study history,’” Yaa Gyasi writes near the end of her novel, Homegoing, “‘you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too.’” With this words, Gyasi offers insight into both the subject and structure of her stunning debut.

Homegoing tells of two sisters’ progeny through vignettes that focus on one character from each of the successive generations. It begins in the Cape Coast Castle, where Effia is sent to marry a British slave trader; Esi is sold into slavery from the same castle’s dungeons. Effia and Esi are both “born of a great fire” that their mother sets in 18th century Ghana, and the shame from her act of rebellion haunts successive generations with notions of fire and sin.

In this tale that spans 300 years of history in Ghana and the United States, Gyasi examines guilt, complicity, legend, and intuition by showing readers how each subsequent generation walks forward with only a scintilla of their family truth. Gyasi’s work is a fierce debut and a memorable exercise in genealogical fiction. Through 14 aching, formidably linked stories, Gyasi reflects upon both the tragic diaspora of the Ghanaian people and what it means to be black in America. “[I]n America,” Gyasi writes, “the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead…”

Homegoing is a big story. Almost too big. It can be frustrating that Gyasi doesn’t stick with a character for long, and each chapter is immersive enough to make the reader feel acute joys and pains of people in disparate times: colonial Africa, the American Deep South during slavery, Harlem following the Great Migration, and broken homes left in the wake of American efforts to desegregate. But Gyasi creates these gaps in stories as an art form; in fact, this is one of the most brilliant elements of Gyasi’s novel.

Its conceit of switching between the two family lines and through generations allows for a kind of purposeful disruption. Her disturbance of the reader’s linear experience of the story underscores how Gyasi inhabits the missing voices of black history, and clearly speaks to how she understands what’s at stake. Gyasi’s powerful message: time keeps moving, but pain remains for blacks in America long after the specific details of their ancestral stories are lost.  “‘We believe the one who has the power,’” one of her characters says. “‘He is the one who gets to write the story.’” Gyasi writes with certitude into the interstitial memory of broken family lines.

Gyasi’s work is deeply emotional without being maudlin. Characters are not starkly good or evil; neither has anyone been drawn as a caricature. The Ghanaians of Gyasi’s work are complicit when it comes to slavery, but they are also victims of their colonizers. Mothers both nurture and abuse. Fathers both protect and abandon. There’s anger—a fire, to borrow a metaphor from the novel—burning through the story.

Forgiveness misses the point, say Gyasi’s characters. “Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And, if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.” Only one element of Homegoing falls below the level of the rest of Gyasi’s story, and it’s an oddly neat ending. But that’s an insignificant quibble. With Homegoing, Gyasi announces herself as a masterful new voice in fiction. More importantly, she declares that there are stories that will not be forgotten.

Heather Scott Partington is writer, teacher, and book critic. Her writing appears in The Los Angeles TimesPloughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Las Vegas WeeklyElectric Literature, and The Rumpus. She holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from U.C. Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus.