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books, Culture, history, storytelling, women's issues

Black History Month Book Report #1: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

First off, this is a great book that succeeds on just about every level. If good books is your jam, here is one.

A woman escapes slavery in the Gold Coast in the late 18th Century. She leaves behind one daughter, goes inland to freedom, has another. One daughter marries an Englishman, and lives out her life in a castle by the ocean. The other is captured, and taken there as a slave, to be sold on to the American South. The novel follows their children and grandchildren down the generations, alternating between the lines, as they live their lives embedded in our history, both African and American, until more or less the present day.

It’s a worthy conceit to hang the novel’s structure on, though not without its dangers. Characters rarely appear in more than two or three successive chapters, and each chapter has a new protagonist moving through a significant chunk of their lives. Each has their arc, though thanks to the history we’re following, arcs do not so much as close as find a way to keep going under immense and unfair restrictions. In less deft hands, a novel like this might fail to resonate, but Gyasi does such a good job with her characters that most all of the chapters are satisfying, to the reader if not the protagonist, and when characters reappear in their children’s lives we can see what those children can’t, that their parents were people in their own right, trapped in unkind history, and doing what best they could under the circumstances, even if that best wasn’t great.

Gyasi’s gorgeous, evocative prose helps the project along immensely. She has a knack for framing that conveys a rich, deep world in the background, the kind of world you could wander off and get lost in if you weren’t careful. But you never do, because the narrative carries you forward, through decades and centuries of lived history, of heartbreak and small victories just great enough to keep it all going, all of it rendered with flawless grace and economy.

My intent is to keep things spoiler-free, so I won’t go into individual characters and arcs. Telling truth, I think it best to encounter them with fresh eyes, even if you know your history well. What Homegoing excels at is melding that history with story, with the stories of lives lived swimming in history’s currents in the wake of the African slave trade. It is, all of it, complicated, with sympathetic villains and humanizing moments to spare, and Gyasi doesn’t spare the reader that complexity in the service of easy answers. This is a work of art, not polemic, after all.

I’m disinclined toward numerical rating, or trying to give my subjective experience a gloss of objectivity. Suffice to say, if you are a person who enjoys moving, beautifully written, well-constructed literature (with or without a capital ‘L’), you will find Homegoing to be all that and more. If you have the interest (and fortitude) to take a long and often painful look at the ramifications of human chattel slavery, in a well-researched  and -rendered (albeit fictional) form, you could do a lot worse than read Homegoing.

It’s one thing to know something intellectually, say that Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South led to all manner of abuses. It’s another to engage with a firsthand account, or a first-rate artistic engagement, one that plays to the full human spectrum, rather than seek emotionless shelter in facts. To my mind, it’s one of the highest purposes of human creative endeavor, an accomplishment of serious magnitude when well-executed. Yaa Gyasi has done that, and then some, with Homegoing.

You should read it.

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About Dallas Taylor

Dallas Taylor is the grandson of a rum-runner, a valedictorian, a handyman, and a good Catholic girl. He lives and writes in Seattle, and builds things for a living in his spare time. In 2010, he attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop.

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