A new book has been on my radar for the past few months: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaaa Gyasi. This upcoming release led me to want the author’s first book, Homegoing, which was first published in 2016. While I thought about adding it to my bookshelves soon, fate stepped in to speed up the process: The new book club I just joined chose Homegoing for our first read, and I was ecstatic to dive in.
I’ve heard a lot about Homegoing lately, and everyone says it’s incredible or even the best book they’ve ever read. I’m here to add to the praise: This novel is stunning and sweeping, a history lesson and intimate look at how traumas and opportunities are passed from generation to generation.
Homegoing starts in Ghana – then known as the Gold Coast – in the late 1700s. We get a glimpse of two tribes, the Fantes and the Asantes, surviving during a time when white European colonizers are wielding power over them. Here, we meet two half-sisters who will never know each other. One is married to an English colonizer and will live in the castle on the coast of Ghana; the other is sold into slavery and shipped to America.
From then, we follow their descendants over the next 200+ years. Some stay in Ghana for generations, while others move across the US – from Alabama to New York to California. Some find love, some live long lives, but all know suffering of some kind. But by the end, there are glimmers of hope, too.
Although Homegoing is a novel, its unique format almost feels like a collection of short stories. Each of the 14 chapters follows one member of the family tree – seven generations on each side. Thus, each character really only gets one chapter to encapsulate a small part of their story. Of course, most characters pop up again in their parents’, children’s, or even grandchildren’s chapters, lending continuity, but each chapter follows a starkly different path than those before and after.
When I started reading, I thought I might need to take notes to keep all of the generations’ stories straight. But the writing is so vivid and the characters are so different that this was never necessary; all 14 of them are still clear in my memory, both because of how impactful each scene is and due to Yaa Gyasi’s immersive writing.
The most powerful strength of Homegoing is how it paints a telling picture of the many ways African and African American people have suffered due to white Europeans and Americans. It’s not just colonialism and slavery — which were major, long-lasting, and thoroughly horrific. It’s also wrongful incarceration and slavery of prison inmates. It’s segregation and poverty, drug addiction and redlining. It’s missionaries who see Africans as heathens and their religions as witchcraft, missionaries kill those who don’t convert. But even among those native to Ghana, inner fighting between tribes and diminishing people as “unlucky” or “crazy” posed constant struggles.
Indeed, Homegoing is a heavy novel filled with strife. It continued to break my heart as each character faced new pains and losses. Most of them felt happiness and love at one point, but no character was immune to suffering of some kind.
Despite the hardships, Homegoing ends on a note of optimism. Certain imagery and themes finally weave together, though not necessarily as the reader may hope. One element from the first few chapters may not make a return, but we do get a full-circle moment nonetheless.
It’s a hard novel to review given its format and my attempt not to spoil anything. However, discussing it with others who have read it leads to numerous thought-provoking discussions. Homegoing really does lend itself well to a book club setting because it offers so many insights and themes.
In the last chapter, following Marcus as he works on his PhD, he shares an illuminating conundrum: How can he write about the convict leasing system without also talking about Jim Crow, redlining, and the war on drugs? He dives into a long list of connected themes, because everything exists within the context of other events. His inability to focus on one issue can potentially be seen as the thought process behind Yaa Gyasi choosing to write her book this way. Instead of zeroing in on one time and place, she offers up hundreds of years depicting a clear chain of events. This is what makes Homegoing such a revealing masterpiece. It puts everything into context, showing the larger picture that leads each generation to its own unique – but related – circumstances. Constraints are passed down and obstacles morph, but we keep pushing forward in hopes of something a little bit better.
Homegoing is a different read, walking the fine line between novel and short stories, but it’s also one of the most powerful books I’ve read. You’ll learn a lot from it and make connections you may not have seen before. You’ll love and cry for each character as they’re lives unfold. But at the end, you’ll be left with hope for the two family trees and for the future.
I can’t wait to read Yaa Gyasi’s new book, Transcendent Kingdom, which I just bought from Book of the Month. If it’s anything like its predecessor, it’ll be nothing short of outstanding.
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