Sunday, February 5, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When she wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of these things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind's eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect. 
Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing starts with two sisters in Ghana and traces their daughters and their daughters' daughters through 300 years of history, moving from Ghana to America and back again. Part of the beauty of the novel lies in the discovery of the structure, so I won't say much beyond that Gyasi has managed to make a 300 page novel spanning 300 years feel leisurely and measured, giving depth and weight to each generation's experience.

There is so, so much going on here. There are the ravages of slavery, of colonialism, of war, of imprisonment, of drug addiction. The family lineages are periodically severed--the passage of information from one generation to the next cut off by choice or by force--and yet each generation bears the burden of everything that came before, often subconsciously. Because of that (or maybe because I had more context for them), I found the more modern chapters more heartbreaking. The generations of horrific abuse that came with the slave trade and warring factions within Ghana were painful and difficult to read, but felt distant and foreign. When Gyasi got to life under Jim Crowe and poverty in East Harlem (compounded by the generations of pain and suffering laid out before), I almost couldn't bear it. That being said, the accumulation of traumatic memories (or their loss) seems just barely manageable:
"When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free."
The village where the stories begin is run as a matriarchy, and women, despite being treated as literal and figurative property, hold an almost mystical power all through the novel as mothers and wives. There is definitely a tension here; women seem to suffer the most brutal losses and abuses, but they are also revered and seem to be able to better fend off the isolation that runs throughout.

A homegoing can be a funeral, a return home to God, and to the generations that have gone before, and Gyasi plays with the idea of home and of return throughout. The book ends with a series of homegoings, and Gyasi manages to make a heart wrenching book end with an upward stroke without breaking form or seeming trite.

I can't believe this is a debut novel. The prose is gorgeous, the scope massive, and I couldn't put it down. Gyasi is able to weave just enough hope into a laundry list of horrors that you don't lose hope, and the jumps in time keep you moving forward just when you're ready to give up.

A note which I wish I'd known before reading: there is a family tree in the opening pages of the book (and before where the e-book starts you off) that is really helpful!

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

Very good review (much better than mine) and very good book. I found the Harlem chapter hardest to read (with the jazz singer--her name escapes me).

I read the eBook and I kind of wished I'd read the paper book so I could easily flip to the family tree.