This review contains a few spoilers, but not many more than you will find by reading the book's cover. This book is about the journey, and I have not ruined that for you here.
When I first finished reading Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing, I immediately registered the feeling of frustration that occurs when the story you’re reading isn’t neatly wrapped up with all loose ends resolved. As I often do when I feel this way, I flipped back a couple of pages and read them again to see if I missed something. On another level, however, I knew that I hadn’t missed a thing. I got what really mattered because, of course, Gyasi engineered it that way. The motifs of fire and water meet on native soil. Light skin and dark are reunited. Two paths that diverged – one through slavery and post-Civil War inequity in America and the other through the tribal tribulations and colonialism of Africa – cross again.
However, I wanted a moment when Maame’s descendants, from Effia’s and Esi’s branches, realized that matching necklaces had been passed down each family line. Since they were studying and discussing their ancestry, I wanted a moment when they realized that they were, in fact, related. But that moment never came. I know I can be hard to please. If things are tied up too neatly, I roll my eyes and think it’s uninspired. Still, I can’t help but feel just a bit disappointed. Imagine The Parent Trap if the twin sisters hadn’t figured out they were twins at camp! Well, there wouldn’t be a “parent trap,” for starters, but essentially, that’s what this ending felt like to me.
Okay, so I’m intellectually resolved to the ending, but some part of my heart wanted more.
Gyasi’s writing is strongest when she delves into the familial relationships between her characters, but due to the chapter structures, this never lasts long enough. As soon as I found myself starting to care about a specific character, I would turn the page to a new character of the next generation in another country. I worked to keep the family ties straight in my mind, to make connections between the characters’ experiences and human truths, but I found the cohesiveness of the narrative somewhat lacking. Now, I know that the argument could be made that cohesiveness is a luxury that was not afforded to these families – especially those destroyed by slavery and tribal war, but storytelling and respect for ancestors was extremely valued by such peoples, and I didn’t feel this adequately reflected in the book. While the fragmented structure mirrors the fragmented lives depicted in this historical novel, it also has a jolting affect on the reader and prevents any real depth of character development or concern for those characters.
I do still recommend this book as a worthwhile read, especially to my students who are mature enough to handle the content and might learn some historical realities that escaped them in history class. The text also deals with issues that are still highly relevant today. Consider this segment that refers to race-based police brutality in the 1960s, and compare it with recent news:
“Only weeks before, the NYPD had shot down a fifteen-year-old black boy, a student, for next to nothing. The shooting had started the riots, pitting young black men and some black women against the police force. The news made it sound like the fault lay with the blacks of Harlem. The violent, the crazy, the monstrous back people who had the gall to demand that their children not be gunned down in the streets. Sonny clutched his mother’s money tight as he walked back that day, hoping he wouldn’t run into any white people looking to prove a point, because he knew in his body, even if he hadn’t yet put it together in his mind, that in America the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.”
Gyasi’s novel offers insight into race relations in America as well as a real look at how the slave trade worked along the Gold Coast, and as we are still dealing with the fallout of the Civil War and an unfulfilled Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., I found the subject matter timely and important.