“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi: sins of the fathers

Homegoing by [Yaa Gyasi]

Maame, an c18 tribeswoman in  what is now Ghana, has two daughters who are fated never to meet and to lead very different lives. Beautiful Effia, born of a casual relationship,  is drawn into a bigamous marriage with the white governor  of Cape Coast Castle, the notorious British slave-trading post on the Gold Coast, although she may never fully realise this. She is cut off from her roots, but lives a life of relative ease. Fathered by  a respected warrior,  Esi’s carefree life is shattered when her village is destroyed in an act of vengeance by an enemy tribe and she is  captured to be sold into slavery at the selfsame castle.

The novel traces the two lines of descent through seven generations, focusing in turn on a specific character in each chapter in order to show many aspects of the longterm effects of slavery up to the present day when Marjorie and Marcus, raised in the United States, educated and free,  are still irrevocably affected by past events, while  remaining unaware that they are in fact related.

We see how a privileged half-caste man, like Effia’s son, and his son in turn, can never truly feel that he belongs to either race. The  warring tribes of the Ashanti Empire are complicit in the slave trade: whichever one holds the upper hand sells the defeated enemy to the white men. Transported to the plantations of the Southern states, enslaved Africans are beaten into submission. If  captured, those who attempt to escape to the North are returned to their master for brutal punishment, even publicly killed to serve as an example. For Esi’s daughter Ness, the only defence is the loss of ability to feel emotion.  African Americans living in the northern states, regardless of whether “runaways” or “born free” risk  being kidnapped and transported to a slavery they have never known.  Even post the Civil War, they face   arbitrary arrest as a source of cheap labour in the mines. And so it goes on, until an angry young man who feels alien in the white areas just beyond Harlem may ease his pain with heroin, or a bright black girl, with educated parents, cannot go to the school prom with the white boy she fancies, because he has been advised by the teachers that “it would not be appropriate”.

To make its point, the novel condenses so much brutality, injustice and bad luck into a  few lives that it is at times unbearable, although leavened with a strand of sentimentality   that one feels uneasy about criticising, just as one hesitates to find fault with the style because of the grim reality of the essential facts .  The thread of magic realism – Maame portrayed as a fire woman, inhabiting the dreams of her descendants,  and the talismanic  black stone veined in gold passed down through Effia’s line,  may seem too contrived, although superstition,  even fatalism, are clearly important influences. It is often hard to engage with a main character who may seem two-dimensional in the few pages of being the main focus of attention,  which one knows will end either in a cliffhanger or drift away inconclusively. I began each  new chapter feeling irritated at being jolted into a new  situation, and distracted by  the need to discover the fate of the previous set of characters. Perhaps the book would have been better  written as a series of short stories, each with a  clear narrative arc.

The historical facts are too often disjointed and unclear,  perhaps understandably so from the viewpoint of the characters, but sometimes confusing for the reader. Although I appreciate Zadie Smith’s  comment, “Homegoing  is a novel I wish I could have read when I was a young woman”, and it is all a matter of taste,  I would have preferred to read a well-written history of this complex, appalling yet fascinating subject, about which there is something for everyone to learn.

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