This was a novel I had wanted to read when it was first published in 2016. Of course, that year was the year of a dissertation defense and a cross-country move and a new job, so by the time I had a chance to breathe, Homegoing had slipped down my list, supplanted by other novels. But then I received Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi’s sophomore novel, in a book subscription box, and I felt like maybe, just maybe, I ought to read her debut before tackling this new one. Reading time still being limited, I opted for borrowing the audiobook, narrated by Dominic Hoffman, from my library instead, because might as well make use of those hours walking the dog.
The plot of Homegoing is a family saga that stretches across centuries, beginning in the 18th century near the peak of the slave trade, and ending in the early 2000s. It follows the respective family lines of twin sisters who were separated at birth: Effia the Beauty, who marries a British officer stationed at the Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana, and Esi, who is captured, held in that same castle, raped by a British soldier and then transported as a slave across the Atlantic to America. Each chapter follows a different descendent in each generation, alternating between the Ghanaian and American sides of the family, until reaching the very recent past. This renders the plot highly episodic, and yet tracing the family lines provides a clear sense of continuity with various highs and lows as people encounter both suffering and joy in their respective lives.
Note: Understandably, since one side of the family line spends about half the novel mired in slavery and its immediate aftermath, there’s a great deal of heavy stuff to work through, so this is not a novel to tackle if you aren’t in a space to read about physical, sexual, and structural violence, with racism tangled up in all of them.
Gyasi does a beautiful job of tracking family dynamics from generation to generation: this is perhaps most magnificently rendered in the chapters for Effia’s descendants, in which it’s so clear how either the love or the pain experienced by the child at the hands of the parent shape how they treat their own child in turn. The chapter involving Yaw is perhaps the most cathartic and moving instance of this; Yaw’s encounter after years of estrangement from his mother, who suffered from a blend of generational/ancestral trauma and mental illness, and yet loved him dearly, is so tender and yet so heartbreaking, but it offers a glimpse of the kind of healing, restorative love that will factor into the conclusion of the novel. In contrast, the trauma of separation and abandonment so often mark the stories of Esi’s descendants, who are often robbed of knowing love or the ability to show it due to factors so beyond their control. Kojo’s story is the most painful iteration of this, and you can see it reverberate through his descendants in turn.
If I’ve one complaint, it’s that the narrative shape of each chapter is identical, and thus highly repetitive after a while: we meet someone in their adult life, on the cusp of something pivotal, backtrack to see how they got there, and then rejoin them in their present for whatever life-altering event (for good or ill) will actually occur. Given that there’s over a dozen of these interludes, this pattern becomes too predictable, and at times I found myself just itching to get to it, or wishing Gyasi would switch it up; the narrative style was also extremely consistent across each chapter despite each character being so very different, and existing in such different moments in time, and I was grateful that Dominic Hoffman would switch accents, which added some valuable variation.
As a debut novel, though, it’s an ambitious format that mostly pays off, and the way in which Gyasi handles the divergence and convergence of these family lines does build to a satisfying emotional crescendo in the final chapter–admittedly, the denouement felt a touch rushed in the moment, and yet it was also a beautiful culmination of all of Gyasi’s themes leading up, and I could not imagine a better way for the novel to end.
If I could do half-stars, I’d make this a 4.5; since I can’t, I think I’ve convinced myself in the process of reviewing to round up instead of down. I’d certainly recommend this one, and I’m looking forward to Transcendent Kingdom. (Hopefully I’ll read it before 2023.)