They say that history is written by the winners, that you can’t trust anything you hear or read about the past because you weren’t there to see it. If that is the case, then Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel casts a light on history from the losing side. It is a compelling read, as poetic as it is challenging.
In 18th century Ghana, two half sisters are separated without ever knowing each other. Effia is given in marriage to an English slave trader, living in a castle. In the dungeon is her half-sister Esi, packed in with other slaves waiting to be sent to the new world. From here, Gyaasi weaves a family history – in the US, following the ‘losing side of history’, as Esi’s family are brutalised by slavery and their link with their ancestors broken, whilst in Ghana Esi’s family trade with the slavers and live with their part in this awful chapter of history.
Using two branches of the family tree allows Gyasi to alternate styles, bringing the experiences of each branch of the family tree into sharper relief. In Ghana, life is full of poetry, with moments of beauty that you can almost wallow in:
“Effia walked around with James in complete awe, running her hands across the fine furniture made from wood the colour of her father’s skin, the silk hangings so smooth they felt like a kiss”
It is beautiful, hypnotic even. In contrast, in America, poetry has no place at all. Instead, life is visceral experience – small moments of joy among enduring brutality, like when one of Esi’s descendants sees the woman he will marry:
“It was the butt that had done it… He’d seen it coming around Strawberry Alley and had followed it four whole blocks”
All of this is combined with a different kind of plot. The story unfolds through a series of standalone fables, each chapter taking us one step further down the family tree. It makes for a disjointed reading experience but its effect is powerful: the reader sees clearly how slavery shatters families, and removes any sense of heritage. Combined with the alternating style running throughout, it makes Homegoing a stunning read.
I highly recommend this book – but be prepared, reading about the lives of slaves is harrowing, but definitely – infinitely – worth it in this case.