The publication of Homegoing last month could not have come at a better time for me. I recently became fascinated by the life histories of African Americans, first through stumbling on a series on You Tube called African American Lives and then, from there, going on to watch the two series of the 1970s version of Alex Hayley's celebrated novel Roots. Both were extraordinarily interesting and made me much more conscious of the often terrible history of slavery and its aftermath, so I was very ready for Homegoing, which follows a similar path.
The novel, which is really a series of interlinked short stories, starts in Ghana in the eighteenth century. Effi, a beautiful young woman, is spotted by one of the wealthy slavers living in the great edifice known as Cape Coast Castle, and becomes his wife. Little does she know that down in the basement of the building, among the 250 or so captives imprisoned there, is her half-sister Esia. The two do not know of each others' existence, but they will go on to found the two dynasties whose lives form the subject of the story. Effi lives out her life in comfort and luxury, but her young son, educated in England, abandons his colonial heritage and runs off with a local girl to start a new life in a far-off village. Esia, meanwhile, is transported to America and so begins the terrible, painful life that is slavery.
From here on we follow the two families' life through the years up to the present day. As you can imagine, neither has an easy time of it. In America, even after slavery is abolished, life is desperately hard and prejudice appallingly rife, while in Africa, wars and conflicts cause great suffering. In the last part of the novel, the African family find their way to the US, though maintaining links with their home village, and the final descendants of the two families - who are unknowingly distant cousins - meet in what seems to promise a healing future for both.
Yaa Gyasi, who is astonishingly only 26, was born in Ghana and lives in America, so she is perfectly positioned for such an ambitious enterprise as this. Unlike Roots, which tells a fascinating story but which has been somewhat criticised in recent years for a little too much fiction is what purports to be a non-fiction book, Homegoing reveals much about life in Africa. One thing that contradicts Haley's story is the fact that most slaves were captured, not by white men trapping them in the jungle, but by opposing tribes as a result of tribal warfare. In other words, Africans sold their fellow countrymen to the white slavers.
Some of the material here is disturbing, largely because it is clearly so powerfully authentic. To say I enjoyed it is not quite right, but I'm very glad to have read it. It's an impressive first novel and one that deserves to be read by anyone who has an interest in what people can do their their fellow human beings. Thankfully there's hope and optimism at the end!
I listened to this on Audible, very well read by Dominic Hoffman. Highly recommended.