So I appreciate that I’m a bit late to the party with this one, and I know I don’t normally review works of fiction, but I’ve just finished reading this book and I had to say something about it. (Though given that I typically review history books, and that this is a work of historical fiction that makes a point about history, I feel somewhat justified. It has, also, taken on a renewed relevance after the recent BlackLivesMatter protests.)
This has been one of the best works of fiction I’ve read for a long time. What was very beneficial for me, someone who has read a lot of histories about slavery (I recently reviewed Padraic Scanlan’s Slave Empire here), was to read something that really delves into the lived experience of enslaved people, and the communities that were affected by transatlantic slavery.
Gyasi structures this book around a family tree, tracing one person from each generation of a family where two sisters are separated from birth. One sister is trafficked across the Atlantic and forced into enslavement in North America; the other stays on the west coast of Africa, and becomes entangled with British colonisation there. The story alternates between two people of each generation.
I love the concept. I think that the idea behind it is very strong, and that — importantly — the execution is excellent. The stories, tragic as most of them are, are told with thought and feeling, and Gyasi deals with a range of very difficult themes in a way that stresses their importance. What’s more, with this concept came a risk that the stories of each chapter could become formulaic — because family is so central to the book’s core, two people always need to meet and produce a child who can become the protagonist of the next chapter. Gyasi does very well to avoid this. The stories are each told differently, some in a more linear fashion, some through flashbacks from a particular point in time. Sometimes the formation of the relationship is the main focus; sometimes a character is already pregnant, and the story focuses on something else.
Despite the range of characters, Gyasi is able to make each one feel fresh and new. In their own historical contexts they face a range of challenges particular to them. Their upbringing shapes their personalities, and there is something unique about each one that makes them interesting to follow. Some characters also feature across chapters, so we get to see them at different stages in their lives.
The most impactful aspect of this book is the stress it places of the legacies of slavery and its continued impact over the generations. Gyasi is able to show, through these stories, how discrimination against black people and people of colour continued to have an impact on their lives even after slavery was abolished. She explores the impact and legacies of the ‘civilising mission’ on West Africa, and what this meant spiritually and religiously. This puts waste to any suggestion that these historic crimes no longer matter because they happened so long ago — the stories told over so few generations shows just how close we really are.
This is the kind of book where the stories stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. If you were as foolish as I was to let this slip you by when it first came out, then do yourself a favour and pick up a copy.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (UK: Penguin, 2017), pp. 320.
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