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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Book Review: A remarkable family history

Homegoing book cover, Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing book cover, Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, is a moving family history spanning 250 years and three continents.

In eighteenth century Ghana live Effia and Esi, two sisters from the same mother who have never met. Esi is born into a prominent Asante family and was destined to marry well, but is captured during warfare and sold to British slave traders.

On the night Effia is born, a terrible fire destroys the family harvest in Fanteland. Her stepmother deeply despises her and connives to have her married off to a British soldier who runs Cape Coast Castle, a large slave fortress at the coast. The only connection the sisters have to their mother is a black stone she left for each child.

Effia accepts her new life as a slave trader’s wife and gives birth to a son, unaware that her biological sister is holed in the slave dungeons beneath her. Like many captive women, Esi is sexually assaulted by the slavers before being shipped from the Gold Coast to America.

The tale follows lives of Esi, Effia and their offspring across seven generations. Each chapter is a vignette of a new descendant, the story moving back and forth between Ghana and America.

In 300 pages Gyasi has captured the history of African Americans: slavery in the cotton plantations; black freemen sentenced to work in the coal mines for petty, often trumped-up offences; the migration of black people to northern states to escape Jim Crow segregation laws; the civil rights movement; jazz clubs and Harlem’s heroin scene in the 1960s.

On the other side of the Atlantic is Effia’s lineage in Ghana and the UK. It takes place against never-ending conflicts between the Asante and Fante people, missionary evangelisation, British occupation of the Gold Coast, and the impact of slavery in Ghana.

The book concludes with the final generation of two students in America in the present day. Marjorie, who was born in Ghana, wears a black-stone necklace she inherited. Marcus is American who cannot swim and is terrified by the sea because, his father tells him, “they were brought over on slave ships.” Marjorie invites Marcus to visit Ghana, where she convinces him to enter the ocean in sight of Cape Coast Castle.

This is a beautifully written story of a familiar topic with rich characters and told in an objective manner. There is no central character and chain of descendants can be challenging to keep up with, so the family tree illustration is helpful. I felt some of the characters could have been explored a little more, that the narrative moved onto the next generation too quickly, which is the challenge with compressing so much history. Nevertheless, a captivating read, especially coming from such a young writer.

Gyasi was born in Ghana and relocated to America at two years old. A visit to Ghana at the age of 20 inspired the narrative, which she wrote at just 26 years old.

Homegoing was awarded the 2017 PEN Hemingway prize for best first book and honoured by the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ last year.

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