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.
This book is truly a feat. The author, Yaa Gyasi -- born in Ghana and grown in Huntsville, Alabama -- is only 26 years-old, which makes this even more impressive to me, when I consider the maturity of most of the 26 year-olds that I know, and once was.
The novel encompasses some huge themes -- slavery, colonization, and family culture among them. The story begins in the 1700s, when the British were starting to arrive on the coast of Ghana, eager to buy and sell Ghanians into the new slave trade kicking up in America and the Caribbean islands. Ghanian villages had a hand in this. Many leaders made pacts and deals with the British, raiding enemy villages, kidnapping their enemies, and selling them to the British for their own cut of profits.
I've read multiple reviews in which readers suggest that Gyasi is wrong for implicating the Ghanians in slavery at all; some felt that it undercuts the responsibility that the British and Americans have for enslaving Africans. However, I didn't feel that way. Slavery was (is) extremely nuanced, and Gyasi simply reported history. She also did so without any sort of bias towards anyone. Whatever her personal feelings are surrounding the sordid history of slavery, she kept them out of her story. This is not to say that her characters didn't have significant feelings one way or another -- they did. But, to write a novel like this without giving characters strong negative feelings would be disingenuous and unbelievable.
Perhaps what I found most incredible about this novel is Gyasi's layout -- and the research she must have conducted in order to write the story. The novel starts with Effia and Esi; they are half-sisters who do not know one another. Effia marries a British soldier and lives in a castle on the Ghanian coast (the castle is real and still exists to this day! I googled it.) in relative wealth and comfort. At this same time, Esi is in the slave dungeon in the basement of the castle -- unbeknownst to Effia -- being held in wait for her transit to American slavery. Effia and her life comprises the first chapter; Esi and her life comprises the second. From there, the book bounces back and forth between the two threads; Effia's son has chapter three, and Esi's daughter has chapter four. The book spans hundreds of years and many generations -- one thread documenting life in Ghana through the centuries, and the other documenting life in America.
What I found especially interesting about the plot of the novel, is that neither thread seemed to have better fortune than the other. When Gyasi starts with Effia and Esi, I thought "Yeah, I'd definitely rather be Effia. Her story is much less painful to read than Esi's." Who wouldn't prefer to live in the castle, rather than be imprisoned in it? However, as the years went on, the line between good-fortune and misfortune blurred. Sure, I would certainly not want to be an American slave. I also wouldn't want to live in a rural African village with the constant fear of being pillaged and set on fire. Of course, one of these threads only happened due to kidnapping and force, so that needs to be considered. As the centuries pass, America moves into the future. Life in Ghana remains very close to what it was in the 1700s. Both threads have nice stories, and both threads have horror.
Regardless, Gyasi nailed it with this book. Her writing talent shines through in every aspect - character development, plot development, and historical accuracy. I'm knocking off half of a star because there were a couple of points that I felt moved a little too slowly -- but this was such a minor fault. I recommend this book if you're looking to learn something new and interesting.
Buy this book here.