This book is marvelous. It’s likely to be the best book I’ll read all year, or in years to come. Mostly I just want to sit here and heap it with accolades, but that probably isn’t as helpful to potential readers as an actual book review would be.
The short version: I am truly floored by the talent of this new young writer. Gyasi (pronounced like “Jessie”) follows the parallel lineages of two half-sisters through several generations, beginning in 18th century Ghana at the height of the slave trade. Effia marries a European slave trader while Esi is abducted from her village and sold, and each generation of their descendants carries the family narrative forward in separate chapters, each of which can almost be read as a discrete short story in its own right. The ending brings the novel full circle and is satisfying in the extreme. This book is hauntingly beautiful and it made my heart ache again and again.
The longer version: Homegoing is a book of meticulous, dare I say superlative, craft. The narrative is relentlessly propulsive, and yet Gyasi has pared down a story that is truly epic in scope to a mere 300 pages. It is a book that explores the terrible and ongoing repercussions of enslaving a race, but which does so with an open heart and an eye toward a future where persons, and a people, might yet be made whole. It is the work of a writer at the top of her game, so the fact that Gyasi is a debut novelist not yet turned 30 is all the more astonishing. It is a story of always seeking the missing part, of looking for home in the next place each character ventures, whether it’s of their own volition or not.
If I had dogeared every page where Gyasi’s words resonated with me, I’d have every other page turned down, but here is a passage that were deeply meaningful, and which, I think, give an excellent idea of the urgency behind much of the book and what the writer is capable of:
Originally he [Marcus, six generations removed from Esi] wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his Great-Grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his Grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction -- the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the 60s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d be inevitably be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table of the beautiful but deadly silent Lane Reading Room of Green Library of Stanford University, and then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was (289-290).
Do you see what she just did there? Do you?
Effia’s descendants, still in Ghana, are as lost as Esi’s are in America, and though never saying it outright, Gyasi implies that the effects of slavery -- the abduction, selling, and general obliteration of personhood of a race over generations -- still vibrate in the mitochondrial level of our DNA. Borne back ceaselessly into the past, indeed.
This book is going to be an important book -- important in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved has become important -- and it is certainly the hallmark of an uncommon literary talent. I almost always scoff when I hear that Unknown Author X has been paid bazillions of dollars for Debut Book Y, but in this case, Homegoing is worth every penny that Knopf has paid for it. And possibly then some.
If you’re going to read one work of literary fiction this year, it should be this one. I’m not sure that I can say anything else.
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided at my request from the publisher. Its US publication date is tomorrow, June 7, and I’m tickled that I’ll get a chance to meet the author next week when she signs at my store on June 15.