There's something about a well-told family saga that I find so immersive and emotionally moving. It gives not only a powerful sense of people's lineage with aspects of personality, physical traits and heirlooms passed through those generations, but also the movement of time. By following the flow of passing generations in a way that we're unable to locked in the immediacy of our own lives, we're keyed into what might have been, the struggles endured and the sacrifices made so that we can live. Novels can anchor these stories of multiple generations in larger themes about the way society has changed over the years as in Neel Mukherjee's “The Lives of Others” which portrays the impact the Naxalite movement in Bengal had upon one family, Matthew Thomas's “We Are Not Ourselves” which shows the lasting effect of alcoholism in an Irish immigrant family in NYC, Sara Taylor's “The Shore” which shows the transformation of an island over many generations and Joyce Carol Oates' “Bellefleur” which gives a sense of capitalism's connection to the American dream. Now, Yaa Gyasi has created such an inventive well-written debut novel which follows the lineage of two African sisters separated at birth and the history of the slave trade over centuries.
One thing I find so moving about a family saga like this is the way it conveys the tremendous fragility of life and importance of personal choices. Not only do these things affect an individual's destiny, but also the destiny of all the generations which will proceed that person. This shows how the element of chance has such a strong impact upon the world. It's observed at one point “How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another.” “Homegoing” really begins with a calamitous event which sees two sisters separated – one grows up in a semi-prosperous family where the daughter is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other belongs to a tribe where she's captured and forced into slavery. It's only through a twist of fate that one thrives and the other suffers horribly. But just because the progeny of these women were born in particular circumstances doesn't mean they are fated to a certain path in life. Through acts of will the subsequent generations shape their own fates and fortunes which consequently heavily influence their own children.
Even though Gyasi follows the individual stories of more than a dozen members of this family through the centuries I was so impressed how it never felt overwhelming or confusing. It's a mark of a great writer that can introduce characters who feel fully formed and already familiar. This is true not only for the family members but also many notable periphery characters including Cudjo (an athletic man with latent same-sex desires) and Esther (a wonderfully garrulous woman who coaxes a historian to express his emotions more). The narrative switches back and forth between each subsequent generation of the sisters' family lines. Many stories build a sense of suspense as you discover the fates of the previous generations during the course of each new family member's story. Key objects such as two stones given to the sisters at the beginning travel through the generational lines as well as songs which are passed down from one child to the next. The initial meaning of an object or song might be lost, but the connection to that family history remains. Certain images also poignantly recur over the stories; it's observed of one early family member Fiifi that “he wore his silence like a golden crown” and then, many generations later, a woman named Willie sings “I shall wear a crown”. These references all add tremendously to the pleasure of the overarching story which the reader is keyed into when the characters are not.
It's fascinating learning particular details about the history of warring tribes (primarily the Asantes and Fantes tribes) in Ghana and how some tribes worked with the white colonialists to capture and sell slaves. A physical colonial castle in Ghana (Cape Coast Castle) which the slave trade was facilitated through becomes a focal point for the families involved in this story. In a way it takes on a fairy tale quality like Bluebeard's castle where some inhabitants live a privileged life unaware or wilfully ignorant of the horrors within the locked subterranean dungeons which hold many captured black people waiting to be sold into slavery in America and the Caribbean. This castle has subsequently become a significant destination where people from the Americas and Britain return to in order to contemplate the significant rift in identity which is colonialism and slavery's legacy. It's a fascinating coincidence that a visit to this same castle also takes place in Zadie Smith's recent novel “Swing Time”. The fact of this historic structure really drives home the reality of the true horrors and long-lasting impact of slavery. Both authors show the quixotic feelings this landmark induces for visitors in contemplating our connection to that history, but also the way it is ultimately unknowable to us.
Later generations meaningfully explore the legacy of slavery in America in particular and its history of racial conflict. When British slavery comes to an end, it's observed how “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” Gyasi powerfully shows how this legacy is borne out over generations leading to disproportionate amounts of black people in America experiencing poverty, discrimination and imprisonment. It leads one character to find that “he knew in his body even if he hadn't yet put it together in his mind: in America, the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.” The novel portrays the consequences of this state of being and conveys what an important influence the past has upon the present.
Yaa Gyasi is an incredibly powerful storyteller and I found the novel as a whole utterly gripping. However, even though I think the transitions from one story to the next are graceful and each family member is compellingly well-rounded in their own right, I found some stories more effective than others. In particular, the story of one woman's move to Harlem with her light-skinned husband who can pass as white felt too compressed and fast-moving to me. It seemed that this particular story needed an entire novel of its own to fully flesh out the conflicts it explores and the conclusions it comes to. But, on the whole, most of the stories work as single pieces in the grand puzzle of this dynamic and fascinating family. I grew really attached to some characters and wished the novel would stay with them longer, but the momentum of moving from one generation to the next creates a thrilling story in itself making me ultimately glad that Gyasi structured the novel in this way. As already observed from many sources after its much-lauded publication in America last year, “Homegoing” is a tremendously accomplished and intelligent debut.