Review: Homegoing

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This is my book review for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I intend to use the ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.


Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem and illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Amazon.com


ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This? Why did I read *This* book?

Ever have one of those moments where you make an assertion and then the universe tries to show you just how wrong you actually are?

Ahem

A Visit From the Goon Squad is not a novel. This is a hill I will die on.

But ironically, one of the reasons I hold that it is not a novel is because each chapter is a total stand-alone short story about characters that are only loosely connected and the connections themselves are varied and cursory… and there is a weird bit of moving back and forth in time.

Hold that thought.

This week’s book is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Why THIS book?

I was reading it last February for #BlackHistoryMonth but halfway through the first chapter, I got sick and it got placed on a shelf out of reach… and then time went by, and then my eyes were still having issues so I could only read on my kindle for a few weeks… and then Covid happened and I got out of the habit of reading for fun for a while.

This brings us to this February. Black History Month 2021. I pulled this book down, found the gift certificate for a place I am pretty sure doesn’t exist (thanks, Covid) that had been serving as a bookmark, and then started over again from the beginning. 

And guess what?

Every chapter is a stand-alone (ish) story about different characters.

Egads!

But guess what else… This IS a novel!

Because… it is chronological and each chapter continues the broader story of a single family line over the course of eight generations. The family tree branched early so it is technically two family lines from one woman, but the generations that come after her continue her bloodline. For eight generations. Each generation has two stories, two characters in each generation, but they all share one common ancestor. 

And there is a helpful little chart that is superlinear because, again, when time/perspective shifts, it is simply the next generation, the child of the person who was the focus of the preceding chapter.  (The Goon Squad book had no such chart even if it really could have benefited from it.)

So… yes. I am aware of the universe trying to get me to change my mind.

But. I’m not going to. 

This is a novel. And… it was a wonderful novel.

Atmosphere / Style

The book spans a lot of time… A LOT and covers a lot of ground as well. From villages and towns and cities in what is eventually named Ghana to the deep south, New York, and eventually California… this book and the lives of the characters are all over the map. Literally. It also spans a lot of time. It starts in the 1760s and ends two hundred years later. Writing each snippet of time and each vignette of life in a cohesive manner while still maintaining the integrity of each individual circumstance… is a massive undertaking and Gyasi is more than up for the task. Her style never suffers. I never felt like any of the people or stories were out of time, and if there is any quibble about the characters it is simply that they were all so good that it was sad to only get a bit of their lives. 

Personal preference, I enjoyed the first 3-4 generations more than the subsequent generations. I am not sure if that is because Gyasi’s skills there were more apparent or just that they were different from what I normally read and therefore were more powerful on a personal level.

Side Rant:

I’m a white reader… a white middle class very privileged reader… who didn’t really start to awaken to the issues of racism in my own country until I was an adult. (I mean, sure, we talked about stuff in school, but it didn’t really land for me until I was older, out of my protective bubble, and had more exposure to people challenging white supremacy.)

I, obviously, don’t speak for all white readers, but I can tell you my experience. Reading about segregation and the Fugitive Slave Law in history class will never be as impactful as reading about them in black written books, for me specifically, novels. 

Reading slave narratives can be moving, but the language is so different that it can be hard to fully comprehend the big picture. It feels so far away, so distant from our own safe little lives. It is very very easy to feel detached… that was “then” this is “now” and that is “history.”

Novels though… give us characters we love and care about. They give us descriptions that make us weep (and yes, I cried while reading this book).

Every time I read a novel about the Black experience, I am shaken by the sheer shit that history has doled out. Some people like to say that Black people should get over the past, that it is unfair for contemporary people to still be bitter about the history that their people have suffered. Those people are wrong.

It is amazing to me that Black people are not angrier. It is amazing to me that Black people can stand any of us white folk.

I know that I will never understand the depths of their anger. All I can do is not shy away from it and give space for it and uphold it.

Ok, side rant over.

Let’s talk Plot

Is there a throughline plot? Yes. Although, there very nearly isn’t. Had this just been a book about the eight generations of the bloodline from one African woman… it wouldn’t have really been a plot (or a novel), but in this case, the stories are connected by the “firewoman”, the dreams, and the stone. This novel‘s plot is the story of one bloodline, separated eight generations ago, trying to reconnect. The bloodline is almost a living breathing thing. The connection between the characters is almost its own character and it drives the plot in many ways. It sets up the ending… the plot is finished when the two branches of the same family tree reconnect. Without this element, the stories would just be stories spiraling out from one another further and further apart… and they would still have been moving and good and worth reading, but they would not have been the plot of one long continuous story. TLDR: the plot was great.

The Characters were also great. Yes, a bit short-changed due to the narrative structure of not staying with any one protagonist for very long, but somehow even though we only got a few pages of each (and often were subjected to paragraphs of exposition to fill in backstories) the characters managed to be individuals with their own sets of issues and complexities. 

The tradeoff is, of course, that these complicated characters are distilled into a few atuions that serve to embody their whole lives and that really isn’t fair. None of us are just one part of our story. I guess what I am saying is that I wish this book had been twice as long.

Entertaining / Would I recommend it?

No surprise here but I loved this book. It was moving and thought provoking. It managed to be optimistic while not shying away from some of the worst atrocities in human history. I loved it and think that it should be required reading. The fact that it was a debut novel by a woman less than thirty years old… just adds to the level of impressed everyone should be. And yes, I already ordered Yaa Gyasi’s 2020 book Transcendent Kingdom in hardback no less. And no, I won’t be waiting until next February to read it. 

I mean really… why wait? BIPOC authors deserve to be read all year long not just in designated months. I really need to get better about that. 


Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments or send me an email.


Reminder of the ASPECT Method.

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This: Why did I read *This* book?

Published by kayliametcalfe

Queer,loudmouth,skeptical-agnostic-pagan,book addict,coffee lover,wine drinker, SAHM,writer,editor,producer,podcaster. -She/her

One thought on “Review: Homegoing

  1. Funny that you liked the first 3 to 4 generations more than the last ones because that is how I felt. I did like the last characters introduced but I wanted more when it ended. I didn’t hate the book but I think the short stories interconnected threw me off plus I’m not a huge fan of short stories.

    Yaa Gyasi has another book that came out last year and I’m hoping to read it at some point.

    Like

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