As 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.