Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing follows the descendants of two half-sisters from the Gold Coast of Africa. Effia is married off by a cruel mother to a British officer, and remains on the continent; Esi, the daughter of a village chief, is captured and sent as a slave to America.
The novel proceeds as a series of what are almost short stories: snapshots from the lives of Esi and Effia’s descendants, moving down the family line into the present, alternating between Africa and America. While Esi’s descendants deal with the direct effects of slavery, and the Jim Crow laws that came after it, Effia’s reckon with what the trade does to those who remain behind. There is imagery that links the two storylines – a black stone given to Esi by her mother has a significant place in the narrative, and there are hints of a curse affecting the family.
It’s interesting to compare Homegoing to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, another novel featuring a cursed family whose story it tells generation by generation. Although Kintu does have things to say about the influence of the West on Africa, it is very much focused on Uganda: on the lives of people (mostly) embedded in their own country and culture. Homegoing, on the other hand, while it retains a foothold in Ghana, is constantly looking across the sea to America: its story is the story of a family striving to bridge an enormous, traumatic lacuna in their own histories. We get to spend little time with each of its characters, and often the time we do spend with them ends in a mystery that’s never solved. (For instance, the pregnant wife of Jo, Esi’s grandson, disappears soon after the Fugitive Slave Act is passed. It’s presumed that an overeager slave-catcher took her despite her status as a free woman, and we never hear of her again.) The characters of Kintu are able to break the curse on their family partly because they can trace their family back to its beginnings, and bring its surviving members together again. The characters of Homegoing can do no such thing. Despite tracing the history of slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, Gyasi’s novel is a story about being history-less; about people who’ve had their history torn away from them.
Despite the greater gravity of Homegoing, the horrifying things most of its characters endure, I actually feel I have less…purchase on it, several months after reading it, than I did and do on Kintu (although I’d say I enjoyed both about the same amount at the time). Homegoing‘s regular structure – each chapter around 25-30 pages, the unchanging alternation of the two timelines – is, for this reader at least, a little too neat. I respond better, I think, to books that are baggy, structure-breaking, language-breaking, as Kintu is in its refusal to resolve the fantasy/realism paradox at its heart. Homegoing just doesn’t quite work for me as I think Gyasi intended it to.