That Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing works so well is nothing short of miraculous.
It occupies that fraught territory between novel and short-story collection – an ambitious structure that in my experience rarely works well.
It begins with the tale of Esi and Effia, half-sisters living on the African slave coast in the 1770s. One grows up in what will eventually become Ghana, the first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence; the other is shipped in chains to work in the American cotton fields.
But the book is not so much about Esi and Effia as it is about the effect this moment, this separation, has on the next seven generations of their family.
Each chapter focuses on another descendant, culminating in Harlem in the 1970s. Meaning that every 20 or 30 pages the reader has to grapple with a new central character, in a new setting, in a new era. Buy Gyasi – just 26-years-old, putting her in the Zadie Smith realm of prodigious talent – somehow pulls it off with remarkable assuredness.
Each character represents some moment or some idea in the history of black America – and yet Gyasi manages too to keep it intimate and personal, never slipping into overt or cloying didacticism.
While many chapters would work as their own self-contained short stories, the book’s real power comes from the subtle but beautiful way it connects them, the way it illustrates how cruelty and injustice can echo through the ages – not just in terms of socio-economic outcomes but deeply embedded in people’s very genetic makeup.