Homegoing

homegoingAs I’ve noodled around with my brackets for the Tournament of Books, based partly on my own reading and partly on conversations I’ve seen about the books, I’ve almost always ended up with Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi up against The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead in the final round. And that was before I’d read Homegoing and realized what a fascinating match-up that would be. The authors both tackle slavery and its legacy, and they do so in ways that start off looking quite different but actually have a lot in common.

I’ve already written about The Underground Railroad, which I read as a time-travel novel that takes readers through the history of racism in America. The literal railroad of the book functions as a portal to different circumstances that, while occurring at the same time in the novel, occurred at different points in U.S. history. Homegoing also journeys through time, but Gyasi’s approach is less fantastic. She follows two families, generation by generation, from Africa to the U.S.

The novel begins with two half-sisters who’ve never met. Effia is born in Fanteland (a region in present-day Ghana). She hopes to marry the future chief of her village, but her mother has a different idea and schemes to have her married to a British man, one of the slavers at the Cape Coast Castle. And so Effia goes away from her village and lives comfortably, even if it’s not the live she’d dreamed of.

The other sister, Esi, is less fortunate. She was born in Asanteland, and her father, Big Man, was the best warrior in the village. But his status did not protect her when a group of Fante soldiers attacked her villages and collected prisoners to sell to the white men at the Cape Coast Castle. So Esi is imprisoned in the basement of the building where her unknown sister lives. And then she is taken away, onto a ship bound for America.

Each chapter introduces a new generation, alternating between Effia’s descendents in Africa and Esi’s in America. The chapters exist almost as a series of short stories, but knowing what came before enhances each story’s power. And curiosity about what will come creates a forward momentum that you don’t get in most short story collections.

Gyasi’s writing and her characterization are remarkable, especially in the early chapters. Each of the central characters felt vivid and fully realized, even though most of them only appear in a single chapter. If they do turn up later, it’s usually on the borders of another character’s story. The jumps through time show that even when there’s great progress, as in the giant step from slavery to freedom, that progress isn’t complete. It’s more like a movement from official slavery to unofficial slavery. And then there are instances where time allows people to grow in understanding of each other, as when a child returns to a lost mother.

The final chapters are somewhat less compelling than the earlier ones, partly, I suppose, because the stories they tell, so close to the present, don’t feel as fresh or new. There’s one generational jump in circumstances that seemed too drastic, without much set-up in the prior chapter. It felt like it was there to get the pieces in place for the final chapter, which is lovely but perhaps too tidy.

So if this were to land in the final against The Underground Railroad, where would my vote go? It would go with Gyasi, for sure. The writing and the characters are so much more vivid. I could understand that the Gulliver-esque journey of the Whitehead’s novel required a sort of bland everywoman character, and I appreciate the scope of history that he presents. But Gyasi’s scope is even more ambitious, and she carries it off beautifully. Both books are gut-wrenchingly painful at times, but in the case of this book, the pain came not just from the situation but from caring about these particular people. It’s a remarkable achievement of a book, especially for a debut. And I’m hoping to see it win the Rooster.

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12 Responses to Homegoing

  1. Jenny says:

    I wish we had written about this book together. I read it just a couple of weeks ago and have it on my list of books to write about in the next little bit. I’m also about to read The Underground Railroad! I agree with what you say about this book (unsurprisingly.) Did you have a favorite chapter or a favorite character? I felt it was almost more like linked short stories than a novel.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh if I’d realized it, I could have waited. I’ll look forward to your review of this and The Underground Railroad.

      I think my favorites were Effia, Kojo, and H.

  2. writerrea says:

    I agree that the later chapters seemed less compelling, and for me it felt like the author had had more time to polish and revise the earlier chapters, but was under deadline for the later ones. It’s interesting to think of these two coming head-to-head. I have to admit, I loved the Whitehead when I read it, but it faded from my memory pretty fast, while this one, even with problems, stuck with me more.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, the later chapters seemed a little perfunctory, but they were still better than a lot of what I’ve read. It’s just that the early chapters were so perfect that she set an impossible standard.

  3. Jeanne says:

    Well, I’ll definitely have to read this one, then, since you say it’s even better than the Whitehead (which I loved having read, although didn’t love reading it).

  4. I’ve not read this one but I like the Whitehead. Not enough to root for it to win, though. My vote goes to The Vegetarian, though I just read The Throwback Special and loved it. I also loved Grief is the Thing with Feathers. I’m hoping a lesser known books wins. This one and Whitehead have lots of awards already. In any case, I am having fun reading along and I’m looking forward to see what happens.

    • Teresa says:

      I like The Vegetarian a lot, too, but it won the International Booker, so it’s not much of an underdog either. My lesser-known favorites were Black Wave and Version Control, but I can’t imagine them making it through lots of rounds. I am hoping for an upset or two along the way. I’m crossing my fingers for Black Wave to boot out Underground Railroad, even if UR is likely to be a zombie.

  5. I’ve gone back and forth a dozen times over which of these two books I should choose to win the whole Rooster. It’s a tough call, isn’t it? Homegoing is such a stunningly assured debut novel, but The Underground Railroad feels more like a coherent unit, but Homegoing deals with centuries of history in such a beautiful, personal way, but The Underground Railroad — I could go on forever. All else being equal I think I decided to root for the one by the lady. :p

    • Teresa says:

      The fact that this showed a single family across generations made it feel coherent to me, and the characters are so beautifully rendered. The Underground Railroad is great, but it never touched me the way this one did. It felt more like a thought experiment.

  6. Stefanie says:

    I am on the very long waiting list for this at my library. Looking forward to reading it!

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