Book review: Epic novel spans four centuries
July 2, 2016
“Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi
“Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi, is an epic novel that spans the 18th century to present day and crosses the Atlantic back and forth as it follows the lineages of two half sisters and the lasting legacy of slavery on their family tree.
At the heart of the novel are Effia and Esi, half sisters doomed never to know of each other's existence. In the late 1700s, Effia is married to the British governor and moves from her village in Fanteland to the Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana.
Esi is stolen during a raid on her small village in the Asante nation and marched in chains to the same castle. There, she and hundreds of others are stored — stacked on top of each other — in the dungeons until they are loaded into the ships that will carry them to the Americas.
At this point, the sisters' stories diverge, and chapters alternate between stories of Effia's progeny, who remain in West Africa, and the descendents of Esi, who live in America.
Effia's family is wealthy and powerful, profiting from the trade of their own people, until her grandson, James, eschews the "shameful work of (his) family."
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The chapters that take place in Africa show the complicated nature of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, specifically, how some African nations, such as the Fante and Asante, were complicit and, in fact, benefited from the trade by purchasing guns or protection from Europeans in exchange for their work capturing and transporting people to the coast.
Readers must not forget the role of Europeans and Americans, of course, who were culpable for providing the market, exploiting pre-existing tribal rivalries and inciting wars to fuel the capture of more people and the brutality and dehumanization they encouraged in the name of profit.
As time passes, Effia's descendents must confront the legacy of exploitation, which has left their homeland drained and ravaged by the slave trade, intensified tribal disputes and the onslaught of European colonization.
Across the ocean, the reader follows Esi's lineage and learns of the hellish results of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in America and how its legacy still endures. One of the most stark and devastating effects of the "peculiar institution" is the fracturing of families and obliteration of any connection to one's sense of home, belonging and history: in Louisiana, Esi's daughter, Ness, "would fall asleep to the images of men being thrown into the Atlantic Ocean like anchors attached to nothing: no land, no people, no worth."
The format of “Homegoing” reflects this sense of loss and splintering. Chapters are mere snapshots of episodes in characters’ lives, and the stories often end abruptly and without closure or resolution.
Readers may find this jarring, wondering what becomes of the characters. But the truth is, the characters — and the real people they represent — so often do not have the privilege of closure, torn from their families and homes without knowing what has become of those they love.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
Emily Katzman is assistant manager at Off the Beaten Path.