Homegoing tells the tale of two branches of the same family, beginning in West Africa in the 1770s and ending somewhere close to the present day.
“Your mother was once a slave for a Fante family. She was raped by her master because he too was a Big Man and big men can do what they please, lest they appear weak, eh?” Esi looked away, and Abronoma continued in a whisper. “You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And 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.”
It starts with two sisters. Effia is born on a night when ‘a fire raged through the woods’. When Baaba, her father’s first wife fails to produce any milk, the villages say it’s because Effia ‘was born of the fire’. After we’re told of Baaba beating Effia and conspiring to marry her to a white slave trader against her father’s wishes, we discover that her mother was a house girl who fled the night Effia was born.
Unbeknownst to Effia, she has a sister whose cries she’s heard in the dungeon of her husband’s castle. Esi spent her fifteenth birthday in there, having been captured by men from a rival tribe and sold to the slave traders. At the conclusion of her chapter, she is shipped out to America.
Before Esi left, the one called Governor looked at her and smiled. It was a kind smile, pitying, yet true. But for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarters, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with the next wave.
Gyasi then takes a risk with the structure of the book: each chapter alternates between the two sisters’ timelines and moves forward along their family line so chapter three follows Quey, Effia’s son, who handles trade between the West Africans and the British, and chapter four, Ness, Esi daughter, who is a slave, cotton picking in Alabama. Each new chapter means a new viewpoint and a new point in time. It means figuring out whose story you’re following. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have been a disaster but Gyasi handles it with aplomb, employing a couple of neat tricks to aid the reader: the first, is that once you’re into the rhythm of the structure, you begin the next chapter looking for clues as to how this character is related to the previous one from that branch of the family (there is a family tree in the front of the book but I never referred to it, where’s the fun in that? Also, I never felt I needed to, the clarity of the character’s position was present in their story); the second is that Gyasi interweaves repetition both thematically and in small details. Once you become attuned to this, there’s a joy in spotting the links. For example, one character in Effia’s branch of the family, hires a house girl who insists on bringing her own handmade broom with her. In the parallel chapter in Esi’s branch, Sonny’s mother storms into the police station to bail him out
…holding her tattered coat in the one hand and a broom in the other. She had been cleaning houses on the Upper East Side for as long as Sonny could remember, and she didn’t trust the brooms white people kept around and so she always brought her own, carrying it from subway station to subway station to street to house’.
What’s most impressive about Homegoing though is that it’s essentially the story of the creation of blackness as a race. It follows the family through slavery, white missionaries in Africa, Jim Crow, NAACP, all the key moments in which whites framed what it means to be black, writing a narrative which continues to prevail. While this underpins the novel, it never overwhelms it. The heart of the story belongs to the family, considering what your ancestors mean for the life you might lead, which runs alongside the idea of the role of structural inequality and how that impacts on prospects and lifestyles. There’s a wonderful passage where the intersection of these two things is highlighted. Again, this is from Sonny’s chapter and he’s gone to his mum’s house for Sunday dinner:
She took a sip of her drink and stared off into space. “White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; now they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can be with they kids. Just about breaks my heart to see you, my son, my daddy’s grandson, over here with these babies walking up and down Harlem who barely even know your name, let alone your face. Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be. There are things you ain’t learned from me, things you picked up from your father even though you ain’t know him, things he picked up from white men. It makes me sad to see my son a junkie after all the marchin’ I done, but makes me sadder to see you thinkin’ you can leave like your daddy did. You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine to own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.”
Homegoing is the full package: engrossing storytelling on a large canvas, brought to life through small, beautifully written details. If you only read one novel this year, make it this one; Homegoing is a masterpiece.
Thanks to Penguin Books/Viking for the review copy.