Here’s the latest book I read for the neighborhood book club. I had to read through it as quickly as I could (meaning with all my other stuff, it still took a week), because my queue is full of good stuff (Elton John memoir arrived yesterday!). It’s another first novel, this time by Yaa Gyasi, daughter an immigrant from Ghana and quite a gifted storyteller. See, folks, some of those immigrants do indeed contribute to society. Ahem.
Homegoing (2016) is one of those epic novels (it says so, right on the cover!) that span many years of one family. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different family member, starting from a maternal ancestor in Ghana and ending up at the present day. Luckily, there is a family tree at the beginning of the book.
Hint: Bookmark the family tree. Even though there is a pattern to the chapters, you’ll probably want to remind yourself of who’s who and how they’re related.me
This isn’t one of those light-hearted “beach read” kind of books. When I tell you it spans the years of the slave trade in Africa, through US slavery, and into Jim Crow times, you can guess that most of the characters didn’t have easy lives. Gyasi does a masterful job of portraying the characters in the story as complex human beings with interesting strengths and weaknesses that often came as a surprise to me. There was nothing predictable in this trip through the family tree of Maame, the mother of the two people whose divergent branches we experience.
If you want more details and pretty much the whole plot, I’ve added the inside of the book jacket, but made it small so if you want to read about the book with long and fancy words, you can enlarge it. If you’d rather have a surprise (like me), don’t click. I’m glad I let the book surprise me.
Two things struck me as adding to the brilliance of the book. One is that she skillfully weaves a theme of fire and water throughout the stories. I hope that’s not a horrible spoiler. It’s fun to detect it, once you pick up on it. I spent much of the book wondering how that would be resolved.
The other is how subtly Gyasi weaves history lessons throughout the narrative. Even if you’re fairly well read on the role of the Gold Coast tribes and how slavery affected many parts of the world when the slave trade from there was big business (which I realized I was, thanks to knowing so many Africans when I was in grad school and talking to them), you learn details and gain insights into people’s motivations and perspectives that are truly valuable. I learned a lot, and enjoyed every minute.
I realize that I said the book has a lot of sad parts, which it does, but it’s well worth the lessons in the resilience of human beings and the history of black Americans. Go find this book! I look forward to reading more from Yaa Gyasi.